On paper, the Chang International Circuit at Buriram is a very simple proposition. A tight corner followed by a short straight, then a tight corner followed by a very long straight, and then a long hairpin followed by a medium-length straight. And then a bunch of complicated twists and turns to get back to the start and finish line.
Of course, a track is never the same on paper as it is when motorcycles actually race on it. Sure, Buriram has three straights which determine a lot of the circuit's character. But there is much more to it than just getting the bike turned and getting on the gas as quickly as possible. There are a plenty of places with a choice of lines, where a canny rider can find an opening on the rider ahead. And the nature of that tighter interior sector is such that a bike which isn't a basic drag bike can make up a lot of ground.
Take Turn 3 (the long back straight has a kink formally designated as Turn 2), the long hairpin at the end of the straight. Not perfectly flat, it offers a choice of two lines: stay inside and hug the inside kerb, and try to make the ground up on corner exit; or run in wide and cut back to the second apex carrying more speed. Both lines work. Both lines get you to the corner exit at roughly the same point in time. And both suit two very different bike characters. It may look point and shoot, but it really isn't.
Fast and fear-inducing
Then there's Turn 4, one of the fastest and most frightening corners on the calendar. It is the only really fast corner which caught Marc Márquez out last year, the Spaniard crashing plenty, but usually only at low speed and with an acceptable risk level. Turn 4 is well over 200 km/h, and a place you have to carry speed to get through to Turn 5, and enter the slow section taking you back to the front straight and the finish line.
The entrance to Turn 5 is crucial, as it offers the chance of a pass, though you risk sacrificing speed through Turn 6, and miss out on getting drive out of Turn 7, and the braking zone for Turn 8. Miss out there, and you have another shot at the longer left of Turn 9. If you can't pass there, then all is not lost: the final corner beckons, if you can carry exit speed from the shallow chicane and Turn 11. A dive up the inside can save the day, but you run the risk of running wide trying to hold the bike on the brakes, and your rival sweeping back underneath you to pip you to the line.
Turn 12 is the kind of corner which helps make a racetrack great. It looks easy, it offers a clear passing opportunity, but the chance to pass always comes with a serious risk. You can outbrake the rider ahead into the corner, or you can get the bike turned and get drive onto the straight. But you have to pick one: you can't have both, as Andrea Dovizioso found in 2019, when he lost out in a do-or-die attempt at beating Marc Márquez to the line on the final lap.
Mix it up
The top four of last year's race nicely illustrate the variety of bikes the track can suit. Marc Márquez used the ability of the 2018 Honda RC213V to stop and turn to outbrake Andrea Dovizioso's Ducati GP18, who had used the Ducati's superior power to blast past the Honda down the straights. The two factory Yamahas finished just behind Márquez and Dovizioso, able to follow but unable to pass. The Suzuki of Alex Rins finished a further couple of seconds behind, just behind the satellite Yamaha of Johann Zarco.
But, as the investment firms are compelled to say, results from the past are no guarantees of the future. "Last year was a strange race, we were a big group and it happened with five riders in the last 3 laps, so I expect this year to have a different situation," Andrea Dovizioso told the press conference.
"I think the level of everybody has changed a little bit so we will see but let’s see the condition, you never know the grip you find in every year and the tires are a bit different. Maybe there will be some rain," the factory Ducati said. All that meant that there were not too many conclusions to be drawn. The main thing was to go out and ride, and take whatever came. "I don’t think it is important to over-think about what we can do. We will see on the bike."
Title on the line
There is more at stake in Buriram this year than last, of course. This year, the title could be decided at the Thai Grand Prix. If Marc Márquez finishes fourth or better, and ahead of Andrea Dovizioso, then the title is his. If Dovizioso can stay ahead of Márquez, then he can delay Márquez taking the championship, and keep his title hopes alive for at least another round.
Realistically, though, it won't make that much difference. With five races to go, Dovizioso needs a minor miracle (in the shape of a slew of Márquez DNFs) to keep the Repsol Honda rider from becoming 2019 MotoGP champion. That is something both Márquez and Dovizioso know, and which conditions their approach to the weekend.
"First of all you try to approach the race weekend in a normal way. But you understand and you realize that it can be a big weekend if you finish in a good way," Márquez told the press conference. "On the other hand we know if it is not possible here we will have another chance in Motegi, Australia, Malaysia and then Valencia, so I will be the same Marc and we will have the same strategy trying to push for the beginning until the end. We will try to prepare well for Sunday’s race so let’s see. We know that here last year Dovi was very fast and the Yamahas were not bad but our main target is to try to prepare for the weekend with the main goal which is to try to fight for the victory on Sunday."
He says it's over
The fact that Márquez could become champion on Sunday is not changing Dovizioso's approach either. "We will try to do the maximum like everybody," the Ducati rider said. "The reality is especially after Barcelona Marc did a step, he was always fighting for victory and the gap was always small when he finished second."
Ducati has more work to do, Dovizioso said, looking ahead to 2020. "We tried to improve our situation, we’d like to be faster because in this situation we are not able to fight for the championship. We are second, we are in a good situation, also in Aragon we did a good race, but it is not enough – the gap to Marc is big, because every race he is there and he can fight for victory. So we are focused more on understanding what we can do, where we have to be better and how we can be better."
Improving a bike that is already good is hard, though. "Especially when your base is good, to make improvements is not easy," Dovizioso explained. "We are focused more on that than the championship, I mean the championship is, we can say, over. Two points, is always there, but it doesn’t change the approach because you try to work in the best way to make the best result on Sunday."
Who will finish ahead? The Ducati has made small steps forward in 2019, doing everything a little bit better. The Honda, by comparison, has taken one large step forward and another large one back. The 2019 RC213V has a lot more horsepower than last year's bike, but the trade off for that speed was a vaguer feel from the front and a loss of the ability to turn.
That makes the battle a slightly more even fight, with Márquez able to keep up with Dovizioso on the straights, but less able to outbrake the Italian and turn inside to pass him. The added speed means Márquez needs to take less risk in the corners. But the reduced turning ability means trying to pass on the brakes is just a little bit more risky. Swings and roundabouts.
But if there is one lesson we can take from 2019, it is that Márquez can find a way. If he believes he can make a break, then that's what he will do. If he can't, then he will hang back and bide his time, just as he has done all year.
Blue boys on the rise
There could be more than a few flies in the ointment to spoil a repeat of 2019. First and foremost, the 2019 Yamaha M1 is a much better bike than last year's machine. It has that bit more power than the previous version, and improvements in electronics have made a huge difference in tire conservation. In 2018, the Yamahas came up just short. In 2019, they might be close enough to make a difference.
The change fills Maverick Viñales with confidence. "Yes, I have a very good feeling at this track," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said. "I think this year we arrive with better momentum, which is always really good and yeah I will try to take the maximum from the bike in FP1 and then see where we are. Sure we understand that we are going to get weak points during the race but we can work a lot in the other parts of the track."
Key to Viñales improvement in particular is a change to the balance of the bike for the early laps. "The basic change is on the setup," the Spaniard explained. "We try to get more compromise between full tank and less fuel, and that's the point. Try to get a better compromise so I can push more at the beginning of the race."
Updates coming into their own?
Viñales will be testing the carbon swingarm again at Buriram, an item which teammate Valentino Rossi has been using for the past couple of races. That experience may be crucial for Rossi, if the carbon swingarm and new exhaust are to come into their own. The minor power boost from the exhaust and more precise feel from the carbon swingarm could help put the Italian back at the front. The fact that Rossi is playing the long game was evident in his choice to change crew chiefs for 2020, bringing in Sky VR46 Moto2 crew chief David Muñoz to replace Silvano Galbusera. His earlier investment in the new parts could pay off in Thailand.
There is no starker evidence that 2019 is different to 2018 than the fate of Johann Zarco. Last year, the Frenchman finished fifth, not far behind the two factory bikes. This year, Zarco sits at home, having been bumped from the factory KTM squad after announcing his decision to quit the team at the end of his first year with the Austrian factory.
His replacement has shone even brighter than Zarco did on a Yamaha M1. Fabio Quartararo has been outstanding in his debut season in MotoGP, outperforming his Petronas Yamaha SRT teammate Franco Morbidelli, and consistently challenging for podiums on the Yamaha. After 14 races, he has more points (123) than Zarco did in either his rookie year (117) in 2017, or his second season last year (112).
The one obstacle which Quartararo faces is the reduced revs of the 2019 Yamaha M1 he has to ride. It is whispered around the team that by the end of the season, Yamaha will have removed that restriction. If ever there was a track where the extra revs might make a difference, it is Buriram. And Motegi, the next track MotoGP faces, is a very close runner up in the top speed stakes.
Rins' next chance?
We also await what the Suzukis can do at the Chang International Circuit. Last year, Alex Rins finished 3 seconds off the winner Marc Márquez, just behind Johann Zarco. The Suzuki GSX-RR has improved since last year, becoming a better all-round bike with more power, improved braking, and an insane ability to stop and turn on a dime. The Suzuki might be outgunned down Buriram's long straights, but there are plenty of places where Rins could stick his Suzuki if he is in the mix. There are outside passes galore, if Rins is in the right place.
That has been the Spaniard's problem this year, however. Rins has two victories to his name, as well as another podium. But he has also crashed out unnecessarily, at Assen, in Germany, at Misano. Rins has been too up and down to challenge for the title. But on any given Sunday, you can never rule him out for the win. The 2019 Suzuki should give him the tools he needs to do just that.
Whatever the weather
The one complication facing the riders is the weather. In 2018, MotoGP had a long, hot, dry weekend in Thailand. This year, they face much more mixed conditions. It could rain on Friday afternoon, it might rain on Saturday, leaving the riders going into Sunday with a lot less setup time than they might have hoped for. That, as the late, lamented Nicky Hayden used to say, is why they line up on Sunday. You never know what is going to happen.
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