Is four tenths of a second a realistic gap between first and second on the grid at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg? It doesn't represent the real strength of the riders on the first two or three rows. The gap separating the group capable of battling for the podium is a couple of tenths, give or take.
And it doesn't represent a realistic pace around the Red Bull Ring. Sure, you can flirt with laps of 1'22 for a lap or two, but to do so requires burning through your tires at an unsustainable rate. You can get down to the mid to low 1'23s on both the soft and medium rear Michelins, but to do so requires you to stress the edge of the tire to the extreme, overheating it and wearing it out in the space of 5 laps, not the 28 laps the race will last.
The soft will do race distance – Michelin expect most riders to be choosing between the medium and the soft rears – but it takes a little more careful management. If anything is going to be a limiting factor at the Red Bull Ring, it is going to be fuel. Spend 28 laps with the throttle wide open for most of the lap, and you burn through gasoline at a rate of knots.
What four tenths of a second, and a new outright pole record of 1'23.027, is Marc Márquez superhuman ability to push beyond the limits of his bike and its tires, and still make it across the line in one piece. Márquez' fast lap extracted every ounce of performance from his bike and his tires, and propelled him to his 59th premier class pole, taking him clear of Mick Doohan as the record holder in the modern era.
How does Marc Márquez do it? Takaaki Nakagami said he had learned a trick to being faster from looking at the Repsol Honda rider's data. LCR teammate Cal Crutchlow quipped that Márquez had far more than just the single trick. "I don't know what trick he’s talking about, but Marc has tricks everywhere." Crutchlow said. "He’s like Houdini. He just vanishes into thin air. You see him one minute and he’s gone the next. I think he has a trick in all the sectors!"
The point was that Márquez was riding well everywhere, Crutchlow explained. "He is riding amazingly. It is as simple as that. Even as a rider, you cannot give this guy enough credit. For what he is doing with the bike he has is very special."
What is Márquez' advantage?
"It’s clear he had an advantage over everyone else. Why? I have no idea," Crutchlow answered his own rhetorical question. "What he is doing differently is nearly in every corner, every braking, acceleration. The lap time I did in qualifying he did about fifteen of them this morning! This is the reality. It is not just me looking at this and he isn’t only making me look average. I’m on the same bike but I can tell you now that if you put most of the other guys on the grid on my bike then they will not be as fast as I am. Everyone is trying their best, and trying to match him. Especially me because I’m on the same manufacturer. At the moment it is not possible. I have to do my own thing, my own race and look at my own settings."
I asked Petronas Yamaha SRT rider coach Torleif Hartelman what he saw Márquez doing differently on those fast laps. He replied with a Dutch expression, "vegen", meaning sweeping or painting, which is understood as being painting thick black lines on the tarmac with your rear tire. If you look carefully at the photo in this tweet by Mat Oxley, you can see what that entails: turning the front by nearly crashing and holding it up on knee and elbow, then spinning the rear tire to drift the rear around and point the bike in the right direction, before picking it up to carry the speed from the corner out of the exit and on to the straight.
It is a trick not dissimilar to the one used by Casey Stoner when he was racing the Ducati Desmosedici. Stoner was on a bike which would not turn, so he solved the problem by crashing the front and getting it to bite again while using the rear to help turn the bike. Explaining the process in theory is easy enough. Actually understanding how to do that on a bike, and then putting it successfully into practice is another thing altogether. The theory is not complicated. Putting theory into practice requires other-worldly skills.
Fortunately for race fans, it is not a trick you can use all race. That would ask too much of the edge of the tire, so Márquez has to ride a little more conservatively. When he does so, others can stay with him: Andrea Dovizioso is a tenth or so slower than Marc Márquez, and Maverick Viñales is another half a tenth off the pace of the leading two. Behind that, there is a big group all with similar pace. Picking the top two is easy. Picking the top five looks pretty much impossible.
Two to fight
Andrea Dovizioso was seeking improvements in the third sector, and had found something which had helped. "We worked, but it’s not enough," the factory Ducati rider said. "Still we lose there. Is a point where for sure I can be better. So we are focused on that. Also some other Ducati riders, because every rider rides in a different way. You can find some positive things from the other riders. There is some margin. This is positive. We are ready for tomorrow."
If Dovizioso and Márquez look set to do battle – though with the odds stacked in Márquez' favor – Maverick Viñales may find it a bit more tough going. His pace is close to that of the Honda and the Ducati, but his pace may not be enough. "It’s going to be really difficult," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider told us. "I was in FP4 with many riders. It’s very difficult to overtake and I lose so much on the straight."
Viñales' approach was simple: "I’m going to try to make our race, start fast, be in the first three on the first lap and then we will see," the Spaniard said.
Grip and passing
The real problem for Viñales is twofold: first of all, it started to rain as we left the track, and it's slated to rain for much of the night, washing away a lot of the rubber which has been laid down on the track. If it is cooler, and there is a lot less grip, Viñales could find himself struggling and unable to compete.
The bigger issue is that Viñales and the Yamahas find it very difficult to find places to overtake at the Red Bull Ring. Without any obvious places to pass, they have to hope they get lucky. "I don’t know," Viñales replied when asked if he knew where he could try to pass other riders. "I really don’t know! I can close the gap but I really can’t overtake. Just wishing in some corners they make a mistake I can go inside. It’s going to be very, very tricky. Maybe in sector four I can overtake there. We are pretty strong there. So I think it’s maybe the only point where we can overtake. We will see. Anyway the race can be different. You never know in the race."
The danger for Viñales is the first few corners: if he gets beaten up in the first lap or so, and faster riders coming flying past on the three straights which comprise most of the Spielberg circuit, he will find it almost impossible to recover the positions he loses. If this were a time trial, Viñales would stand a chance. But this is a race, with 21 riders all starting at the same time. If he loses positions, it will be almost impossible to get them back.
Good news for down under
Other riders to watch, behind Márquez, Dovizioso, and Viñales? Jack Miller had a miserable qualifying and will start from eighth on the grid. But his pace is much better, and if he can get a good race he can trouble the front runners. "We know what we've got to do tomorrow," he said.."I've done a lot of work today through FP4 and stuff like that, and I feel as prepared as I've ever been for a race, that's for sure."
Some news may help Miller. On Saturday evening, Motorsport.com printed a report stating that Jorge Lorenzo would not be leaving the Repsol Honda ride to take the Australian's pace in the Pramac Ducati team. Instead, the Spaniard is to stay with the Honda team, and Miller will likely sign a contract with Ducati on Monday. The whole saga is coming to an end, and that can only give Jack Miller a real confidence boost.
Danilo Petrucci was also unfortunate, and slipped down the order to start from twelfth tomorrow. The choice of the medium front proved to be a mistake for the Italian, the Ducati requiring more support in braking and turning.
"I was just a little bit too fast," Petrucci told us. "I was very very happy about the feeling I got in FP4, when I was quite fast with the hard front, but for qualifying I chose the medium one in front and it was not enough support and I tried to carry the speed inside the corner, but when I released the brake I lost the front and I crashed. It was a big shame because this morning we found a good setup and also in FP4 my pace was good."
At KTM's home race, it looks like they could be on for a double top ten. Pol Espargaro has been riding brilliantly, using the KTM RC16 exactly the way its designers intended. He may not have the pace for the podium just yet, but he still has a good chance of a strong result.
"Analyzing all the riders and the times it looks like we might be around seventh-eighth," the KTM rider said. "Q2 was nice but the race is tomorrow. It was important to be nearer the front of the grid because this track is quite narrow and not so easy for overtaking."
"I was in the top six-seven throughout the FP4, which was nice, but everything could change tomorrow morning," Pol Espargaro said. "We’ll need to be fast in adaptation. I have the feeling I have the speed and with a new tire can risk a bit to be with the guys further forward in the first laps. The problem is where am I going to be after ten laps? This is my biggest question."
It is not his teammate who is threatening to join him in the top ten, despite Johann Zarco's greater experience in MotoGP. Instead, it is the Tech3 KTM team's Miguel Oliveira who should be fast. "Yesterday, I thought top ten would be possible and I am optimistic about that," the Portuguese rider said. "The laps will be tough but we hope we can pick up a good pace from the start."
Oliveira had just missed out on Q2, demoted to third in Q1 by an impressive Pecco Bagnaia. "When you get that close it is quite disappointing," he said. "I knew after FP3 it would be hard for Q2. You really need to make a lap in FP3 because Q1 is qualifying and everyone has a lot of adrenaline. We said our goal was to start the race a few rows in front and we did that."
Bagnaia starts from fifth on the grid, an impressive result and his best qualifying result in MotoGP. Though his pace is not bad, a second row start is a good place to be at a track like the Red Bull Ring.
The Pramac Ducati rider's improvement came from changes made at the Brno test, he said. "We made a step in front, not on the bike, but more on my feeling," Bagnaia explained. "Because I felt something in the last part of the entry and it has been the most positive thing of the test, and it was the thing I really wanted to have. In this weekend we already know that the bike is very suitable for this layout but the step we have made in the Brno test has made it that now I’m in P5. "
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