In all likelihood, how you view Sunday's MotoGP race at Aragon will be a matter of perception. For many people, it will be a forgettable affair, the race over after the first couple of corners, Marc Márquez clearing off into the distance. For a few, it will be the greatest display of motorcycle racing they have ever seen. Both views are valid, because, in all likelihood, Marc Márquez will win Sunday's race by something approaching the largest margin in a dry MotoGP race ever.
That might seem like a bold prediction, but just look at Márquez' performance so far this weekend. In FP1, he came within a quarter of a second of the outright lap record. In FP2, he was posting times in race trim to match his rivals best laps on brand new soft tires. In FP4, he was a 'mere' four tenths faster than Maverick Viñales, but of the 17 full laps he posted in the session, 6 were faster than Viñales' best lap. And 10 were faster than Fabio Quartararo's fastest lap in the session, the Frenchman finishing third in the session.
Securing pole position was almost a formality, his 61st pole maintaining his 50% record. (And stop to think how insane that is, that Márquez starts from pole in half of the races he contests.) He was a third of a second faster than second-place man Fabio Quartararo, and didn't really look like he was trying. He had time to spare on ramping up the pressure on his rivals, choosing his position to make sure they knew he was there, and coming through.
Mind the gap
Sunday's race is 23 laps long, and on race pace, Márquez' advantage is somewhere between four and six tenths a lap over his rivals. A simple multiplication suggests he will win the race by 11 or 12 seconds. If the group behind get caught up scrapping with each other, that could easily grow to exceed the 15 seconds Valentino Rossi won at Brno in 2008 by. But 2008 was a different era, when Bridgestone was on the verge of putting an end tire competition, and there were only a few bikes capable of competing. In 2019, there are twelve or more bikes capable of battling for the win.
But not at the Motorland Aragon circuit, a track where Márquez is completely in his element. There, the reigning champion looks set to win comfortably, while behind him, a group of six or eight bikes slug it out for the remaining podium slots. It should be a different race to last week's contest in Misano, where Márquez had chased Fabio Quartararo all race long, before finally outfoxing the Petronas Yamaha rider on the final lap.
"In Misano was easier to follow because Fabio had the pace," Márquez told the press conference. "Here it’s time to push in front because if I don’t push in front will be a big group in the front. We will see." The Spaniard tried to backtrack on the idea that he would try to get away from the start, but could not quite bring himself to, somehow. "This doesn’t mean that I will go out and I will push from the first lap. I need to understand the track conditions, weather, and how is the feeling with the bike. Step by step. It’s not necessary to open a big gap from the beginning. Let’s see if we can."
Practice makes perfect
There was a reminder of just how Márquez has achieved that dominance during FP3. In the half-wet, half-dry conditions, Márquez decided it wasn't worth going out: too much risk for too little reward. He only went out at the very end of the session to do an out lap to practice his bike swap skills.
And not just his skills, but of the whole team: the second bike was put outside the garage, on wheel stands front and rear, and with tire warmers fitted front and rear. As he approached the pits, the mechanics pulled the tire warmers off, first the front, then the rear, the bike ready to go just as he dismounted from one bike and climbed onto the second one. This was a full dress rehearsal, making sure everyone was operating smoothly and with no hitches. If it rains on Sunday – and the chances are it won't – Márquez and his crew will be ready, and won't be making any small mistakes that could prove costly. Perfect preparation prevents poor performance, as they say.
We are seeing Marc Márquez at the peak of his powers, and he intends to underline this with an overwhelming victory. He will also take a big step toward wrapping up the 2019 MotoGP championship, in all likelihood extending his lead over Andrea Dovizioso to over 100 points going to Thailand. The title celebration may not have to wait until Motegi.
The sheer dominance of Márquez is overshadowing a fascinating phenomenon. The new generation is on its way, Fabio Quartararo and Maverick Viñales sharing the front row with Márquez, but also clearly the fastest of the rest in race pace. Once again, the two youngsters on the Yamahas are chasing the reigning and future champion, proof both of the talent of Viñales and Quartararo, and of the improvements of the Yamaha.
I tried to get three of the four Yamaha riders to rank the performance of the four bikes which have won a MotoGP race this year, but none of them would give me a straight answer. What they did say merely emphasized the progress which Yamaha have made this year.
"Sometimes it's strange to understand, because also in Misano, we spoke to Italian journalists and sometimes it's difficult to understand that for example the Ducati won in Austria, and after we went to Silverstone and it was struggling," Valentino Rossi said. "Or also Rins, he was fantastic in Silverstone, and slow in Misano. So we have some ups and downs that are difficult to understand. It's difficult for me to make a classification, but I can say that the good thing is that we have not done anything incredible, we just worked in a better way with the electronics for the acceleration, and we have done something clever, and it looks like the bike has a good potential."
"Actually I think we make a step forward, especially from the first laps," was Maverick Viñales' comment. "We always get really good into the rhythm. Race by race we are understanding better the bike and the way to go. We are making updates on the bike. Depends where you look. If you look at Honda and Marc, we are still far. If you look the other manufacturers, teams that we catch up a little bit. But we have to focus in our own job and trying especially to be very clear for next year and to get the maximum. Right now to get the maximum from our bike and to enjoy the races."
Rossi expected there to be quite a group battling for second on Sunday. "The situation at the moment is very similar to Misano," he said. "We have Márquez who is fastest, this time by more, but also Quartararo and Viñales are faster than me. So it looks like the podium is a little bit there. Also Rins here is fast, but he has to start from behind, but he has a very good pace, and anyway, Rins is very fast to recover positions. But we need to improve, because I'm not fully happy about the balance of my bike, in some places I'm not fantastic. So we continue to work, and tomorrow we will try to make a good start and try to understand if I am strong enough to fight for the podium."
That group will also include the Ducatis of Jack Miller and Andrea Dovizioso. Miller is best placed to get among the front runners, the Pramac Ducati rider qualifying on the second row. Miller felt confident that a podium is possible on Sunday. "For sure," the Australian said. "If you look at the lap times, I feel we've got a strong pace, strong enough for the podium. Generally I'm a better racer than I am during practices, so I feel I have a little more up my sleeve. But Marc's looking very strong. We both put in 17 laps, he was on average two, three, four tenths quicker than me per lap. So we have to find a little bit but we're not too far away and we've put in the work, a long run of 13-14 laps in FP2 and then 17 laps in FP4."
Where was Márquez making up the time? "Mainly out of turn ten onto the back straight," Miller said. "Just on the left-hand side especially he seemed… because he only passed me right at the end, I didn’t see him until both our tires were quite used, but it seemed he had a little more on the left-side left than I did. I was creating more spin, on full angle through Turn 10. It's a long corner, full angle and you're neutral with the throttle waiting for the bike to come back. And as I'm doing that it's like the edge of the tire gets hot and then starts spinning. It doesn't recover basically until the braking zone for Turn 12. Into 12 the edge is still hot and even on the back straight when I change direction in the chicane the edge is still hot and I'm losing drive."
If there was one weakness of the Ducati, it was the edge of the tire. "Just in general I think we need to try to be a little bit more gentle on the edge of the left side and if we can do that, in sector one I felt I was stronger than him and in a few other places like the Corkscrew I felt quite strong. We'll try to tidy it up a little bit, make it a bit neater and it'll be good I think for tomorrow."
The Aprilia view
Aleix Espargaro had had a front row seat for Márquez' speed, the Aprilia rider following Márquez around during qualifying. "The biggest difference was strange because I was expecting that he would brake super late, and we arrived at the first corner and he braked super early and I almost hit him," Espargaro said. "I followed him and then before the downhill chicane he also braked a lot earlier than me, so it was strange because he braked not super late, but before he arrived at the apex of the corner he released the front brake and when he leaned and put the body in a really low position, the amount of speed he is able to carry is just unbelievable."
Espargaro had benefited from watching Márquez up close, but also suffered when he tried to do what the Repsol Honda rider could do. "I did a good lap behind him but I had a lot of chatter at the apex because I really go a lot faster than in the other sessions because I was following him. And in the apex of the corner, before touching the throttle, the corner speed he can carry is unbelievable."
Carrying speed mid-corner has a huge advantage, Espargaro explained. "The thing is that when you make this, you can prepare a lot the acceleration. Because when I'm stopping the bike going wide he's already looking in the second part of the corner, to accelerate. So he carries a lot of corner speed and then he has a lot of traction. It's not super difficult to ride like this but also the bike has to allow and the problem is when I go at that level I had a lot of chattering. I didn’t have chattering all weekend and on my flying lap I almost crashed three times because of the chattering. So it was a good lap to work on it and to study."
Podium pace, if not position
Aleix Espargaro has something of the opposite problem to Andrea Dovizioso. Espargaro had qualified fifth, but was uncertain of his race pace. Dovizioso had qualified down in tenth, but felt he had the pace for the podium.
The factory Ducati rider's position was down to a mistake he had made in on his fast lap. "My problem was my mistake in Turn 12," Dovizioso explained. "I was doing a good lap time for our potential, the goal was to be on the second row, and I had a chance, but unfortunately, I braked too late in Turn 12, and I had to stop in that lap. After that, in the third lap I tried again, but the tire had already dropped, and I couldn't improve."
"So I'm really disappointed about that, because I think we have some chance to fight for the podium. If we look at the pace, with the used tire, we are there, we have the chance. But to start like this, further back, it will be very difficult. The start will make a big difference, it will be very important to be in the right position in the first five laps. Make a good start and a good recovery at the beginning of the race, and after that, we can start to think about race pace and being consistent until the end."
Ups and downs for KTM
If Saturday had been a good day for Aprilia and Aleix Espargaro – both Aprilias had gotten through to Q2, the first time that has happened since the Italian factory had returned to MotoGP – it was much worse for brother Pol and KTM. The younger of the Espargaro brothers had a big highside at Turn 8 in FP4, on his out lap on hard tires. That resulted in a fractured left wrist which ruled him out of the race on Sunday, and could yet see him ruled out of the Thai MotoGP round at Buriram.
Espargaro's injury could not come at a worse time for KTM. Earlier this week, the Austrian factory decided to replace Johann Zarco with test rider Mika Kallio for the rest of the season. Kallio is still getting up to speed in race trim, and while Zarco was still struggling, it felt like he was starting to turn the corner on the RC16. Espargaro's injury is a reminder of the fragility of a MotoGP project, and of how a few minor mishaps can set it back a surprisingly long way. And they are still no nearer to finding a permanent replacement for 2020.
The KTM project is still generally heading in the right direction. But Espargaro's injury is a detour they really didn't need just at the moment.
And a gentle reminder. The MotoGP race starts an hour earlier than normal, scheduled for 1pm CET, to avoid the clash with Singapore F1. If you are setting your recorders, make sure they are set to the right time slot.
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