Looked at objectively, motorcycle racing is a pointless exercise. Sure, it has some benefits. The engineering involved helps make motorcycles better, safer, and more efficient. The determination of riders to return to action as quickly as possible makes them willing guinea pigs for medical science to try out new ideas for faster and better recovery from injury. But in the grand scheme of things, being able to ride a motorcycle around a track faster than anyone else is fairly meaningless.
Unsurprisingly, that is not how the actual competitors see it. For motorcycle racers, being able to go around a track faster than anyone else is the most important thing in the world. To paraphrase former Liverpool FC manager Bill Shankly, it is not a matter of life and death, it's more important than that. That is precisely how riders end up as willing guinea pigs for medical science. As Marc Márquez explained to Spanish journalist Mela Chercoles in the sports daily AS, "to understand the limits of the bike, you have to accept that if it takes 25 crashes to understand, then you have to be willing to crash 25 times in a season."
Qualifying at Buriram was an object lesson in precisely this. Marc Márquez is engaged in a campaign of intimidation on his way to the 2019 title. Fabio Quartararo is staking his claim as the young pretender, the man to finally depose Márquez from the pinnacle of MotoGP. They both wanted pole position in Thailand. Badly. Really, really badly. And they both pushed beyond the limit in an attempt to wrap up pole position for Sunday's race, crashing out at Turn 5 in the attempt. They laid it on the line, and paid the price, fortunately walking away without injury.
Finding the limit
Both gave honest assessments of their respective crashes afterward. "From my side, I was pushing a little bit too much," said Fabio Quartararo. "We crashed in the same corner but not in the same way. For me was just braking a little bit too much in the edge and I was a little bit on the limit. The grip was still the same. I just went over the limit in this corner."
"For me, it was different but the grip was okay," Márquez said. "I just had shaking out of Turn 4. When I arrived in Turn 5, the calipers were open and then I braked, but the bike was not braking in the same way. Then I went into the corner with more speed. I knew and I realized, but it was the last lap. I was coming in the fastest lap and I try anyway. I already understood when I was at the brake point that there was big chance to crash."
It was pure competitiveness which pushed the two over the limit. Marc Márquez had been the first rider to set a quick lap, but he was quickly bested. Five minutes into the session, Fabio Quartararo became the first rider to do a 1'29 lap around the Chang International Circuit, an example Marc Márquez quickly followed, though the Repsol Honda rider couldn't match the time set by the Petronas Yamaha.
Records and riders tumble
In the final minute of the session, Quartararo pushed on to take a couple of tenths off his fastest time, taking the lap record down to 1'29.719. Márquez saw that, and pushed on, trying to get under the time set by the Frenchman. In the first and second sectors, Márquez was quicker than anyone else on the circuit, and on track to take pole back from Quartararo. But he would not make it that far, crashing out at Turn 5. Shortly after, Quartararo suffered the same fate, setting his best times ever through the first two sectors, before having the front wash out as he asked too much of his tire trying to turn the bike through the middle of Turn 5.
They were not the only riders to go down there: Valentino Rossi had crashed there early during qualifying, making his life more difficult than necessary. "Unfortunately, with the first tire I made a mistake," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said. "That corner is a little bit critical because it has a lot of bumps, but I think I was a little bit wide and I lost the front."
Jack Miller explained why Turn 5 was proving to be such a challenge, in his usual colorful language. There was a bump in the braking zone for the corner, and that made the corner very challenging indeed. "It's a *** of a corner to be honest," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "You come in there and with a new tire you run a little bit more engine brake, and when you hit that bump, it overloads the front right at the worst moment. Fabio's was quite late into the corner, his one wasn't really the bump. But Marc's was clearly the bump, you see him hit it, and it goes on him. Especially with a full tank, it's definitely one of the places you've got to be a bit more easy on the brakes, that's for sure."
Quartararo and Márquez were not the only riders to get into the 1'29s. After both men had gone down, it was the turn of Maverick Viñales to make his mark. The Monster Energy Yamaha deployed a two-stop strategy, using his final run to breach the 1'29 barrier and set a 1'29.825. It was not quite fast enough to take pole from Quartararo, but enough to get ahead of Marc Márquez and take second.
Quartararo, Viñales, and Márquez had pushed each other on to enormous heights. Quartararo led Viñales by a tenth of a second, and another tenth separated Viñales from Márquez. But Márquez was half a second quicker than fourth-place man Franco Morbidelli, an outstanding result for the Petronas Yamaha rider.
That intense speed was what had pushed Márquez and Quartararo to crash, Aleix Espargaro noted. "I think that the first three riders, and Fabio and Marc are two of these three riders where they crashed, they were super fast," the Aprilia rider told reporters. "Morbidelli is fourth with the same bike as the pole man, and he's at seven tenths, so it's unbelievable how fast Marc, Maverick, and Quartararo rode today."
Quartararo's pole takes him into rarefied company. It is the fourth pole of his rookie season, bringing him level with Jorge Lorenzo in 2008, and Dani Pedrosa in 2006. Only Marc Márquez has more poles as a rookie, with nine in 2013. That is remarkable enough, but he is one achievement away from being granted whatever the current equivalent is of alien status. Márquez, Pedrosa, Lorenzo all won races in their rookie seasons in MotoGP. So far, Quartararo has come up short.
Of course, it is not really a fair comparison. The other thing which Lorenzo, Márquez, and Pedrosa all have in common is that they spent their rookie seasons in factory teams, Lorenzo with Yamaha, Márquez and Pedrosa with Repsol Honda. Quartararo is in a satellite team, and has been further handicapped by not having the same revs as the factory Yamahas.
That restriction has now been lifted, as Petronas Yamaha team boss Wilco Zeelenberg confirmed to MotoGP.com's excellent pit lane reporter Simon Crafar. "Realistically, we are down to the last couple of races of the season, and we know mileage-wise, engine-wise where we are. So, we are allowed to have a little bit more of RPM in case we need it for back shifting in to the next corner." The extra revs are useful not so much on the two long straights in Thailand, but as this excellent comment on Friday's round up explains, in better gear selection on corner entry, allowing Quartararo to carry more speed and get better drive out of certain corners.
Can Quartararo convert this pole into victory at last? The field looks to be closer than it was at Aragon, according to Andrea Dovizioso. That means there could be a large group battling for the win, the factory Ducati rider believes. "A lot of riders have really good pace, so like in a lot of races, it could be a big group in the race," he said.
"Marc is really fast, but Maverick I think is really strong for the race," Dovizioso opined. "But the four Yamahas I think they are very fast, they were quite fast today in the pace, apart from the qualifying. And Jack [Miller] I think has a good pace, he can be there, like in Aragon. I have a good pace, but we are there. So third row is not the best, but we have our chance, I think, but some details are impossible to know now, because we are very, very close and like always, it's impossible to know how much they push, or if they will be a bit slower in the race."
Key to the race will be Marc Márquez' approach. The Repsol Honda rider needs only to finish ahead of Andrea Dovizioso to clinch the 2019 MotoGP title. But Márquez also has an insatiable appetite for victory, and would surely like to wrap up the title with a win. He has the pace to win it, though not necessarily the pace to get away cleanly at the start. He faces a battle, and though Márquez has never shied away from a fight, he faces a choice about how much risk he is willing to take, and what his priorities are.
"We are trying to manage the weekend like a normal weekend," Márquez said, trying to brush off a question enquiring about his strategy for Sunday's race. "We are working. We are pushing. We are trying to prepare the race to have the chance to fight for the victory, but we know these two guys [Quartararo and Viñales] will push a lot. One because he’s looking for the victory. The other one wants to come back in the top of the podium. But this is not our main goal. My main target is try to stay on the podium one more time, one more Sunday, and if it’s in front of Dovi much better."
The list of candidates for the podium is long. Jack Miller is staking his claim, and starting from sixth on the grid, has a very good shot on the Pramac Ducati. "I did a long run on [the soft rear tire], 12 laps, all of them were 1'31 lows, up until I finally noticed that Marc was following me for the majority of nearly 8 or 9 laps. So I rolled out, he rolled out, and I just cruised around for that lap, he went into the box and I just continued on my merry way," Miller said.
"But I felt really good, I think we can keep that pace, mid to low 1'31s, and I think that's looking at a good chance for the podium," the Pramac Ducati rider told reporters. "We'll have to wait and see. Seems like Yamaha have upped their game in terms of horsepower this weekend, it doesn't seem too slow, so we'll hope to make a good jump off the start and try to get in the fresh air as early as possible and just try to stay there as much as possible."
It was likely to be a race where patience and strategy paid off, Miller believed. "That's going to be key tomorrow, more than anything it's going to be to manage the tires, try not to overheat the front or the rear tire too much, and sort of bide your time to the end. From the inside of the second row, I should be able to get a decent jump, and maintain the speed with the boys. Just try to get close to the front, little bit less hot air around the front won't overheat the front too much, and see what we can do."
Miller finds himself between the two factory Ducatis. Danilo Petrucci has finally found a little bit of speed again after suffering through some difficult weekends, and starts from fifth on the grid. But Petrucci is wary of the race, worried that the heat would end up making life difficult for tires and brakes. "It’s not a secret that I always suffer in these conditions," Petrucci said. "Tomorrow will be one of the hardest races of the entire calendar."
"For sure the heat in the front tire is an issue for everyone, and also the brakes," the Italian continued. "When you follow other riders it’s so difficult to breathe and also it’s difficult for the tires and brakes to breathe. It’s an extreme condition, I must say."
It could be a busy group at the front. All four Yamahas have good pace, as does Marc Márquez and the three Ducati GP19s. The big absentees are the Suzukis, though they too are not that far off. The GSX-RR had been expected to do well at Buriram, but the nature of the track is such that the Suzuki struggles in places.
The corners are hard, not the straights
"The truth is that we need something more at the end on the qualifying," Joan Mir said, after qualifying in eighth. "We need to find something more on the rear. We don't have enough grip to make the lap time, and with a new tire, it's a lot of time that you lose."
"The middle exit grip, we struggle with," Mir explained. "And in the third sector, if you lose some grip in the middle of the corner then you don't recover, you just spin and spin and spin, and the bike doesn't go forward, and this costs a lot of time at the end."
They had been expecting to lose time along the straights in the first two sectors, but that was not where the Suzukis were losing out, explained Mir. "The truth is that we are losing all in sectors 3 and 4. The turning, where you need that grip like I said, to make the difference. And at the moment, we have to wait for that grip."
A matter of pride
There is a lot at stake in Sunday's race. Marc Márquez' priorities will determine a lot of how the race plays out. He does not appear to have the pace to break away from the pack, though the timesheets suggest he has the best pace on the grid. If he finds himself in a battle for the podium, he will have choices to make. If he is close enough to try for victory on the last lap, he will surely give it a shot.
But if he isn't, what then? His first priority will be to finish ahead of Andrea Dovizioso, and wrap up the 2019 title ahead of Honda's home race at Motegi. But Márquez' pride is also at stake: 2019 is as close to a perfect season as possible for Márquez: he has already won eight races, and finished second in five others. His only blemish has been crashing out of the lead in Austin.
What if it looks like Márquez is on for a third place? Or worse, looking at finishing off the podium? Will he be willing to accept third or fourth place, and score his worst finish of the season in taking the title, or will he push that little bit harder to take second, and maintain his record of first and second places? He can afford to crash in Thailand – he has already done so twice – and still have a very good chance of wrapping up the title at Motegi. If Andrea Dovizioso wins at Buriram and Márquez crashes out, the Repsol Honda rider will still have a lead of 73 points at Motegi. If he can finish ahead of Dovizioso in Japan, then he would clinch the title there anyway.
But why risk it? Why not settle for finishing ahead of Dovizioso, or even finishing just behind him, and needing only to finish in the top six or seven at Motegi to be certain of the title, no matter what Dovizioso does? Because pride stings, and racing matters, at least to those who risk life and limb on the racetrack. And that is precisely why we could be in for a classic spectacle on Sunday. Pride is at stake.
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