There is a lot to like about the Gran Premio Octo di San Marino e della Riviera di Rimini, aka The MotoGP Race With The Name Which Is Too Long To Fit In A Headline. The track is just a stone's throw from the Italian coast, so visitors can spend their days at the track and their evenings at the beach, soaking up the atmosphere. The weather is (usually) spectacular, the food is outstanding, and the area has a long association with motor sports, and motorcycle racing in particular. A quarter of the paddock could probably sleep in their own beds and commute to the track at the weekend.
But the upsides also have a downside. The location of the circuit may be perfect for the fans, but it is a nightmare for crew chiefs and riders. The sea mist which settles on the track most nights brings salt along with it, robbing it of grip. The spectacular weather in September usually also means the sun burning down, raising track temperatures to the high 40s Centigrade, and into the region where the grip falls off a cliff. The track can be greasy and unpredictable, and despite being resurfaced to address these issues, physics and chemistry will always prevail.
Franco Morbidelli knows the track well. As part of the VR46 Riders Academy, he rides the track on a very regular basis, and knows how it changes throughout the year. "We all know that we are going to struggle with the grip," he says. "Misano, especially in this moment of the year has no grip at all. It's very hot, I think that the salt that comes from the sea somehow affects the grip. I know the track very well, and I know how it reacts, and during the summer, it's completely different, no grip at all."
A track for all seasons
The biggest change comes as the track heats up, Morbidelli explains. "It's more from winter to summer time. When the summer time starts, it's still OK. May, June still OK. Then middle of June, July, August, September, and then October the cold starts. But the change of the grip between summer and winter is unbelievable in Misano."
Would it be better to hold the race in the spring, before the sun heats the track up too much? Morbidelli sides with the fans who make the pilgrimage to the track. "The perfect conditions for the race depend on many things. For grip level, I think May. But for crowd level and the excitement and atmosphere of the GP, it's good to have it in summer, because Misano is a great race weekend. It doesn't matter how the grip is, globally it's a great weekend." The grip is the same for everyone, as they say.
Reports from the test, held here two weeks ago directly after the race at Silverstone, are that the grip then was pretty terrible. The asphalt had been sandblasted to remove excess rubber from the track, and though the surface did get a little better as the track rubbered in over the two days, it did not improve as much as a circuit might normally. The only hope is that slightly lower temperatures – in the mid 20s rather than the low 30s Centigrade – will give the surface a little more grip than during the test.
Deceived by sticky rubber
Nor can you read much into the test times at Misano. Michelin had brought a couple of tires for the riders to test, in addition to the race allocation. One was a super soft rear, used to provide data on wear rates for research purposes for the French tire manufacturer. It was so soft that it would not last for more than two laps, riders being told to go easy on the out lap to prevent it being used up before their flying lap. Several riders used that tire, but not everyone did, making the final times very deceptive. The extra soft was at least a second quicker than the normal tires.
(And before you ask, no, Michelin will not be reintroducing qualifying tires. This was a completely experimental tire used solely for the purpose of data gathering. It will not appear at a race track, Michelin was at pains to explain to journalists.)
The other tire which Michelin brought was a rear tire with a different casing. This was tested previously at Barcelona and Brno, and received glowing reviews from the riders. But that tire, too, is quicker than the rears in the 2019 allocation, but it will not be available this weekend, nor at any of the races in 2019. The times set on that tire are equally unrepresentative of comparative performance.
What does this all mean? It means you can't read anything into the final standings after the test. There were riders with a lot of work to do on new parts, and there were riders just chasing times. Some factories had mountains of new bits to test – Yamaha had a second version of the 2020 engine, a new exhaust, a carbon fiber swingarm, Honda had their 2020 prototype, and a range of other parts, KTM had their normal massive workload as they try to close the gap to the podium bikes – while the satellite teams spent their time fiddling with setup and trying different tires. Different programs meant different objectives, and an irrelevant finishing order after the test.
A bit of most things
Putting that to one side for a moment, what can we expect at Misano? Historically, the layout has been good for Yamaha, with Ducati having proven competitive in the last couple of years. The track is relatively slow, with some tight changes of direction and a couple of very fast corners. It does not quite have a little bit of everything, but it certainly taxes various aspects of the bikes.
Danger lurks in the first section, especially at the start. The tight and then left of Turns 1 and 2 catch many a rider out on the opening lap. They're not much easier later in the race either, for though Turn 1 presents a good place to try to pass someone, it is easy to either run wide or mess up your line and lose a position just gained through Turn 2. The hard standing on the outside of Turn 1 means a mistake is not punished by a crash, but it is a point which Race Direction watches like a hawk, quick to come down hard on anyone taking too much advantage of the extra run off.
The track then goes right through the slightly quicker Turn 3, before the riders get hard on the brakes for Curva Rio, the slow right at Turn 4, followed by a tighter right at Turn 5 before flicking the bike left and onto the straight. Getting out of Turn 6 is crucial, accelerating hard from second gear all the way up through the box along the curving back straight, where the bikes bank over through Turn 7.
Tie a yellow ribbon round ...
It is then hard on the brakes for Turn 8 or Quercia, named after the old oak tree which once stood there. Quercia is an ideal passing spot, where if you are brave enough on the brakes you can get ahead of your rivals. There is a risk here too, though, as turn in too early or brake too deep and you get off line on the exit, a crucial part of lining up Tramonto, an open entrance which counts as Turn 9, which closes up for Turn 10, and the run onto the top straight.
Tramonto is another favorite passing spot, the different lines offering avenues for attack, though it is imperative to get good drive off towards Curvone, the fast right of Turn 11. Fly through there and you are on to Turn 12, before braking hard and leaned hard over for the tightening section of Turns 13 and Turn 14. Turn 14, Carro, is the slowest turn on the circuit, and consequently, it is vital to get drive out of the turn and through the left of Turn 15 as you head back towards the final turn.
Turn 16, the eponymous Misano corner, is do or die. The last chance to try to dive up the inside of anyone ahead of you, or try to block anyone behind you. Get it wrong, and there is still a chance to counter attack, so even if you think you're ahead, it ain't over until you cross the line.
Sharing the spoils
Who does this layout suit? Yamaha have historically won a lot here. Six of the twelve races held here since the premier class returned to Misano have been won by riders on Yamahas, with three each going to Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi. But Honda have also won where four times, and Ducati twice, so it's fair to say that there are no clear favorites going into the track. The circuit needs a bike to turn well, but also accelerate well from the low first and second gear corners. The bike needs to brake and turn, and it needs to be able to find grip from a difficult surface.
Can Yamaha reclaim the glory days? In its current state, the M1 has a couple of key weaknesses which might prevent that. The Yamaha suffers when grip is low, in no small part because it lack acceleration and can't get the traction needed to get out of low-gear corners quickly. At the Misano test, Yamaha tried a carbon fiber swingarm which might help in that area, as well as a new double-barreled exhaust similar to the Suzuki which could give a bit more drive. Will they make an appearance at Misano? We shall see Friday.
Valentino Rossi would certainly like to have a strong race at Misano. There are persistent rumors that the Italian sees this round as key to his future. It is said that he wants to make a decision here whether to continue racing after his contract expires at the end of 2020. So far, Rossi looks as competitive as ever, and is working harder than before to remain so. A podium or a victory would help swing the pendulum a very long way towards staying in MotoGP. But what effect would a bad result have?
Monster Energy Yamaha teammate Maverick Viñales should have more to fear. The Spaniard struggles when grip is low, and those are the conditions he looks likely to face at Misano. Viñales has not yet given up completely on the 2019 championship, and has had some decent results since his victory at Assen. But his starts and the early laps remain his weakest point, and he manages only occasionally to remedy that.
Youth and enthusiasm
The Petronas Yamaha riders could be a factor at Misano as well. Fabio Quartararo was the fastest at the test, just as he is so often fastest and among the fastest in almost every session he competes in. Being fastest at the test may not be an indicator of anything other than Quartararo's ability to be fast over one lap, as the Frenchman used the special super soft tire to set his time. But Quartararo continues to be a threat in just about every condition and at just about every track.
Franco Morbidelli knows the Misano track like the back of his hand, and comes off a strong result at Silverstone. That result came as a result of reverting to the setup crew chief Ramon Forcada had found at the first race in Qatar, and which he and Morbidelli had spent all season trying to improve upon. That has proven to be just about impossible, so the Italian goes into his home round with great expectations of a good result.
Misano is key for Ducati as well. The circuit serves as Ducati's second test track, after Mugello, and that has shown in Italian factory's results in recent years. The reward came here last year, when Andrea Dovizioso finally won at the track, finishing ahead of Marc Márquez. And if Jorge Lorenzo hadn't crashed out while battling with Márquez, it could potentially have been a Ducati one-two.
Can Dovizioso repeat that feat? The circuit suits the Ducati, the Desmosedici capable of generating the mechanical grip to get out of corners quickly. The traditional weakness of the Ducati has been long and fast corners, of which there are mercifully few at Misano. The GP19 might not have anywhere to showcase its top speed, but it brakes hard, turns in well, and holds a line well enough to be able to compete.
Eyes on the prize
But first Dovizioso will have to overcome Marc Márquez. Low grip conditions are where Márquez excels, his dirt track training and cat-like reflexes allowing him to manage a sliding bike better than anyone else in the world. The Honda accelerates better than it has in recent years, though if there is a weakness, it is in the final part of front-end feeling under braking. Misano is littered with corners where feeling on the front end under braking is crucial: Márquez may need to approach Misano with a little more caution than at other tracks.
He has a major advantage, though. He leads Andrea Dovizioso by 78 points in the championship, and has made it plain again and again that his primary goal is to wrap up the title. With Aragon up next weekend, a track where he has dominated, Márquez will quickly settle for a podium place if he isn't certain of winning. Márquez is never happy when he doesn't win races, but he knows that he is far unhappier when he fails to win a championship.
When can Márquez wrap up the 2019 title? In theory, he could be crowned at Aragon, but that would require too many other riders to not score points. A more likely scenario is Motegi, if Márquez continues his record of not finishing any lower than second.
Road to recovery
His teammate faces a tougher weekend at Misano. Jorge Lorenzo is still recovering from the fractured vertebrae he suffered in the crash at Assen. Lorenzo rode at Silverstone, but it was a more painful experience than he had expected. That affected the Misano test as well, Lorenzo only putting in a few laps on the first day before skipping the rest of the test. With a couple more weeks of rest and recuperation, he should be stronger and fitter.
But what can Lorenzo do in Misano? If there is one thing which the Spaniard hates, it's low grip conditions, so it will be a tough return for Lorenzo. He still has a lot of work to do adapting to the Honda RC213V, given how much time he has missed this season with injury. His main focus will be to keep his head down and work on getting back up to speed.
Perhaps the most intriguing prospect at Misano is the Suzuki GSX-RR and Alex Rins. The Spaniard comes to Misano fresh off victory at Silverstone, and highly motivated. He had a solid race here last year, working his way from tenth on the grid to finish fourth. The bike is stronger than last year, especially in the places which count at Misano: it turns on a dime, stops well, and has decent drive out of corners.
Rins is riding better as well, and is having Suzuki's best season since 2000, the last time the Japanese manufacturer had two wins in a year. That year, Kenny Roberts Jr went on to win the title, and though the championship looks to be out of reach for Rins, he looks more than capable of winning another race or two before the year is out. Misano could prove to be just such an occasion.
Joan Mir also makes a return, now recovered from the massive crash he had at the Brno test, which ended up with a badly bruised lung. Mir is still working on recovering fitness, and Misano will be a good measure of just how well his recuperation has gone.
There will be a lot of focus on the KTM garage this weekend, though not necessarily for the right reasons. KTM is still searching for a replacement for Johann Zarco, after the Frenchman's shock decision to leave the factory team at the end of this season. Zarco is already suffering the consequences, the Frenchman leaving the test early two weeks ago and handing over to Dani Pedrosa to continue the test work on next year's bike.
The low grip will not favor Pol Espargaro. The factory KTM rider loves to bully and push a bike around, and doesn't work on a track where the grip cannot be depended upon. But KTM has been making steady progress, and the Spaniard was fast at the test on race tires, though he ended well down the order once others starting using the super soft tire. Espargaro and the KTM are knocking on the door of the top five. Misano might not be the circuit they break into it, but they are not far off now.
One worry for KTM is the fitness of Miguel Oliveira. The Tech3 KTM rider suffered damage to his shoulder when he was knocked off the bike at Silverstone by Johann Zarco. He was unable to ride at the test two weeks ago, but will be hoping to be recovered enough to compete in Misano. If he has to pull out of this event, the rest of the season could prove tough.
The hard grind
Misano is also the home round for Aprilia, the factory at Noale just a couple of hours from the track. But the chances of a good result look to be slim. Morale in the team is low, Aleix Espargaro growing increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress with the bike, while Andrea Iannone continues to circulate at the rear of the field. Technical director Romano Albesiano is focused on the revolutionary new bike he is preparing for 2020. But that is no consolation for Espargaro and Iannone, who face the remainder of 2019 with a bike they don't believe is competitive.
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