Winning championships starts with winning races. But there is more to winning races than just turning up on Sunday, whacking the throttle wide open and holding it there for as long as possible when the lights go out. Winning a race is a long, drawn-out process, involving planning, strategy, assessing your strengths and weaknesses.
Sometimes, after looking at the pace of your rivals, checking it against your own data, balancing expected tire life against performance, and watching where the rest of the grid is stronger and where they are open to attack, you have no choice but to admit someone else is faster. It then becomes a question of trying to see what is possible, and trying to find a different way to succeed. Winning may be hard, but it is never out of the question.
So riders explore other ways to try to beat their rivals. The race doesn't just happen on Sunday, it starts in practice. You can try to win by going faster than everyone else, but sometimes, you can win by making your rivals go slower. You try to get into their head, intimidate them. Sometimes you do that by posting an explosive lap that nobody believed you were capable of, and which they fear to copy. Sometimes you do that by following them around on track, watching them, copying them, making them aware of your presence all the time. After all, every ounce of energy spent worrying about you is one which can't be spent on trying to go faster.
King of the hill
Great riders, champions, are bullies. They have many reasons to want to win, but their biggest driving force is to show anyone who dares challenge them that they are better than them. They don't just want to win, they want to rub the rest of the world's noses in it.
Qualifying at Sepang was a classic example of just that. Marc Márquez had come to Sepang high in confidence after winning five races in a row, but knowing that Sepang would not be as easy as the tracks which preceded it. He came intending to win, but knew it would not be easy.
Free practice merely reinforced that impression. The Yamahas dominated the timesheets, not just with single laps, but also on race pace. Márquez knew that he was quick, but Maverick Viñales had much better pace on used tires, and Fabio Quartararo, Franco Morbidelli, Valentino Rossi, Alex Rins were all on more or less the same pace as him. If Márquez is to win on Sunday, he needed to find a way to slow the others up. Especially the rider he fears most: Quartararo.
Why fear a rookie?
Why would a six-time MotoGP champion be afraid of a rookie? Márquez has won eleven races this, finished second in five more of them, so why would a rider who is yet to win a race concern him? Perhaps because he knows just how hard he is having to ride to beat the young Frenchman, especially in his rookie season, and especially on a bike which is on paper at least the lowest spec of the Yamahas.
But there is more to it than that. Márquez has had Quartararo in his sights for a long time. At Jerez, after Quartararo took his first ever MotoGP pole, I had an informal chat with someone who knows Márquez. Quartararo was the rider Márquez was worried about most, they told me. "Fabio has no fear," they told me. Since then, Márquez has been doing his best to instill fear into the Petronas Yamaha rider.
So far, it hasn't worked. Márquez out-rode Quartararo at Misano and Buriram to beat the Frenchman, but he had to work for it. And Quartararo did not flinch throughout those races, nor during those weekends, withstanding all the pressure Márquez could bring to bear. It took all of Márquez' talent and experience to beat him, though.
In Sepang, Márquez knows he has his hands full with the Yamahas. Maverick Viñales might be the quickest of the lot, but Márquez knows he can beat the Spaniard, having done so just last week. So he turned his attention to Quartararo, thinking not just of Sunday, but also of 2020, when the Petronas Yamaha team is to get A spec Yamahas for both their riders. If Quartararo starts the season with a year's experience and a factory bike underneath him, he is likely to be the toughest nut Márquez has to crack if he wants a seventh MotoGP crown.
The Repsol Honda rider decided it was best to get his retaliation in early. As Q2 started, Márquez head out on his own, but it quickly became apparent to him that he was not going to manage to set a lap on his own. He needed a target, and as slowed up to let Jack Miller past, who had been behind him, Márquez saw Quartararo close behind. He slotted in behind the Frenchman, and followed him as Quartararo went on to set provisional pole.
Even with the tow, Márquez was still coming up four tenths short of Quartararo. Worse was to follow, with Viñales and Franco Morbidelli slipping ahead of Márquez on the timesheets, bumping the reigning champion down to fifth. Márquez knew that his best chance of a front row start was to follow Quartararo, so he tailed the Frenchman back into the pits, then waited for him to depart again.
Márquez had his garage location on his side. As Sepang is their home circuit, Petronas Yamaha SRT team had garage number 1. Normally a prime location, but in this instance, it is at the beginning of pit lane, meaning that to exit pit lane to start the next lap, Quartararo had to ride past the garages of every other MotoGP team, including that of the waiting Márquez. As Quartararo rode approached, Márquez' mechanics slipped off the tire warmers and sent the Spaniard out after the Frenchman.
The shenanigans began from there. Márquez made no secret of wanting to follow Quartararo – quite the opposite, Márquez' objective was that the Frenchman knew what he was up to – but the Petronas Yamaha rider had no real desire to play along. They played a game of cat and mouse on their out lap, Quartararo accelerating then slowing up in his efforts to shake off Márquez, and force the Spaniard to chase a quick lap.
They skirted the fringes of the towing rules, ensuring they were not slow in three sectors, and thus avoiding a penalty for dangerous riding, and kept assiduously off the racing line. But as the clock ticked down, one or the other of them would have to make a dash for it if they wanted to set a fast time.
It was a battle of nerves, each of them having their own motivation to give in and go chase a lap. Márquez knew his time was not good enough to hold on to fifth as the rest of the field put in their last charge. Quartararo had his own inner demons to fight, the desire to be fastest, everywhere and always, and knowing he could best Viñales' time.
Making a break
Quartararo cracked first. He sat up before Turn 9 to have a long look around at Márquez, as if to ask just what he was playing at, before picking up the pace through Turns 10 and 11. He took another quick look back at Turn 14 before putting his head down along the back straight. Márquez was with the Petronas Yamaha on the way into the final corner, but couldn't carry the corner speed or get the drive onto the back straight.
The Frenchman got a bit of break when he found Danilo Petrucci on the exit, perfectly placed to get between Quartararo and Márquez. The factory Ducati rider accelerated hard to try to get onto the tail of Quartararo, forcing Márquez to ride around the Italian, working harder than he had wanted to.
Márquez' plan to intimidate Quartararo came to a sticky end in Turn 2. Forcing Quartararo to lead had put Márquez in the right place for a tow, but it had also allowed him to dictate the pace, letting Quartararo manage his tire temperature, while forcing Márquez to disregard his tires in his attempt to keep up. As Márquez started to flick his bike left for Turn 2, his tire betrayed him, flicking the Spaniard over the handlebars in a massive highside. It may have been slow, but it was ugly, Márquez slamming first his ankles, then his knees, then his elbows and finally his face into the asphalt.
It was a high price to pay, but Márquez had brought it on himself. He had tried to intimidate Quartararo and push him into leading. But in doing so, he had let the left side of his tire cool off too much, and when he tried to follow the Frenchman, that had come back to bite him.
'T is but a scratch
It was clear that Márquez had taken a big hit, though he did his best to hide it. He took a little while to stand up, and though he made it back to the pits on the back of a scooter, he doubled over briefly with pain when he walked back towards the garage. After review by the medical staff, he was assessed as having heavy bruising to his legs and knees, as well as pain and inflammation in both his shoulders, though more in his right shoulder than his left, the one he had surgery on. He was given painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs, and will be assessed again in the morning before the race.
Speaking to the media, Márquez played down his injuries. "I'm OK," he said. "Of course, painful around all the body, but yeah, it was a big crash. We set up the bike to have a good rhythm, but we were struggling for one lap, especially in the change of direction, and the bike was a little bit more unstable."
The Repsol Honda rider admitted he had been looking for a tow. "In some circuits you are strong, and I push, and some riders are following me, and in some circuits I just need to find another strategy," Márquez said. "I tried to push alone the first run, but alone, my lap time was 1'59.4, 1'59.3. If I have somebody in front, I was able to do 1'59.0, 1'58 high. 1'58 low was impossible like they did, but 1'58 high was possible."
If in doubt, brazen it out
But Márquez denied he had specifically been trying to follow Quartararo, claiming the Yamaha was the wrong bike for the Honda to try to follow. "This time it was Quartararo, but honestly speaking, I was looking for another rider," he said. "It's quite difficult to follow him, because he's doing the lap time in a different way, and it's not so good to follow him with the Honda. But yes, this time the strategy was not the perfect one, but anyway, when you have some weak points, you have to analyze well. And the most important thing is that on the race pace, especially with used tires, is where I feel stronger."
There are of course a lot of things wrong with this claim. Whether it is hard to follow a Yamaha on a Honda or not, Márquez has at least had an awful lot of practice. At Misano, Buriram, and Phillip Island, he spent pretty much the entire race stuck on the tail of a Yamaha. He should be quite good at it by now.
Then there's the TV footage. The helicopter feed available on the MotoGP.com website video of the session shows exactly what Márquez was doing: After a new rear soft tire was fitted, Márquez sat on his bike waiting, his mechanics around him at the ready. The mechanic on his right looked back along pit lane, waiting for Quartararo to leave the box. Once he saw Quartararo start rolling, he gave the mechanic to the left of Márquez the nod to start the bike. The others removed the tire warmers, rolled the bike off the stands, and Márquez was ready in time to roll out right alongside Quartararo.
If Marc Márquez was looking for a tow from anyone else other than Fabio Quartararo, he was doing his very best to hide it.
He had also failed to intimidate Quartararo. The Frenchman's mental resilience is remarkable – both at Jerez and in Thailand, he recovered his composure within minutes of respectively a mechanical failure when he was within sight of his first podium, and being beaten by Márquez on the last lap in sight of his first win. Quartararo showed that same toughness on his final lap, going on to obliterate the lap record he had broken on Friday even further. In FP2, Quartararo had posted the fifth fastest ever lap of Sepang. In Q2, he set the third fastest lap, and the official pole record, the laps of Danilo Petrucci and Pecco Bagnaia having been set during the test in February.
He was unflustered by the attention of Márquez, he told the press conference. "He was behind me in the first run also, so I think if he wants to follow us is that we are doing a good job," the Petronas Yamaha rider said. "I think the team and me, we are proud of the job we do this year. So I think it’s a little bit part of the game. If one day I have the possibility to do it, I will do it also. I think it's good for both riders."
Márquez could not reckon on much sympathy from other rider either. Jack Miller, who had found himself balked by Alex Rins on the same lap, had seen the incident from close up. "I ran on at turn one and saw Marc highside," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "I knew exactly what he’d done. He was d***ing around so much and the left side gets cold. It’s quite hard, the left side here and it got too cold and highsided him. Watching the replay it did not look pleasant because he wasn’t able to get any hands up. It was straight on the face so I hope he’s alright."
Miller had no desire to criticize Márquez' strategy, however. "It’s hard to say exactly what he was trying to do," the Australian said. "No one knows. He’ll know. He had a game plan obviously and he was playing the cat and mouse. He’s generally the master tactician but today it came back to bite him on the ***. I mean, he’s eleventh. Hey, he’s a world champ so he can kind of do whatever he wants."
Starting from eleventh hurt more than the crash did, Márquez said. "Honestly speaking, more disappointing to be starting from P11 than the crash," he told the media. "It will be difficult because this is not one of the best circuits for us. The only thing is that FP4 has been very good, good rhythm, but it will be difficult. It's not the same as starting from the front. During all the season we did 17 qualifying practices in a very good way, in the perfect way, perfect strategy, and this time I was not able to find the perfect strategy."
The target, Márquez said, was the top five, and if at all possible, attempting to keep his (almost) perfect podium record. "We start from eleventh, we will try to do our 100%. The target is try to arrive in the top five, and if the podium is possible, perfect. But the victory will be very difficult."
From rain to damp to dry
Márquez may have had good pace in FP4, but conditions in that session made it hard to judge. The session had started with rain flags and quite heavy rain, though the track never really got wet. Grip levels were completely different though, throwing everything off kilter.
"FP4 was crazy," Aleix Espargaro said on Saturday afternoon. "It was raining a lot, and everyone was pushing like hell, so you have to push, because the lap times, when I crossed the straight the first time, I saw 2'00.5 from the first rider on my board, I was like, what the ****? No way to go 2'00.5 with this rain. But then I pushed and because of the high temperatures, you don't feel like the circuit is wet."
Johann Zarco, who has been very impressive on the LCR Honda Idemitsu since taking over from Takaaki Nakagami, had found conditions in FP4 a tricky experience, after a very strong FP3 which saw him earn passage directly to Q2. The Frenchman believed that the rain in FP4 had helped the riders go faster in qualifying, ironically, by reducing track temperature.
"I think in the afternoon, this weather limit with the rain helped to have a low track temperature. That's why I think we had many fast lap times in the afternoon," Zarco said. He was feeling much more at home on the Honda, though. "I feel better. My front feeling is improving, and this helps me to choose the line, or to have more control of the bike. Then it's still some work to have a better control of the rear grip when you go out of the corner. You can sometimes spin, sometimes you can go fast. So here it's very sensitive and when things come automatically, I think I will go faster and more constant."
Danger from the boys in blue
But it is the Yamahas which are the danger at Sepang. Maverick Viñales' pace has been ferocious, consistently two or three tenths faster than anyone else. "Maverick’s blistering pace with the 1'59s, it looks like he’s going to ride away from us again," Jack Miller said. "But we’ll have to see how the race unfolds."
Being patient would be key, Miller said. "I think all the Yamahas seem to be going pretty strong. It’s going to be one of those cat-and-mouse kind of races like it always is here for the first 10-15 laps. Keep calm and try not to destroy the tire too much. I felt I rode quite smart race in Australia. It will be quite a bit more of that I think come Sunday here."
Miller believed it was traction where the Yamahas were strongest. "The Yamaha seems to be working quite well. There is a lot of time on the angle, a lot of turning," he said. "For example sector three is my worst sector by far and that’s where the Yamaha can excel. We’ve got big horsepower. The Honda’s got big horsepower. The Yamaha can get out of the turns quite quickly, especially that long right hander before the back straight."
Spies like them
Cal Crutchlow was inclined to agree with Miller, based on watching the video the team shoots at every race from track side. The teams can then overlay the video of each rider, in a technique known as 'ghosting', which allows them to see the strengths and weaknesses of each bike, where they gain and where they lose.
It was drive and traction where the Yamahas were strongest, Crutchlow said. "We know on acceleration – we have a video guy that is at every corner throughout the year, every circuit. He changes position over the weekend. And where they gain massively on us is corner exit. Don't get me wrong, they are strong in the braking as well and the corner speed, but they seem to have better grip than us. But our bike seems maybe better in the braking zones. We have our strong points on the Honda, definitely and we'll see what we can do tomorrow."
Pace vs qualifying
The Suzukis also seem strong, though once again, their biggest problem was qualifying. In terms of pace – taken from FP2 and FP3, FP4 having been rendered close to meaningless by such quickly changing conditions – Alex Rins looks to be very close to Viñales, and Joan Mir not far behind. But Rins starts from seventh, and Mir from thirteenth on the grid, positions which don't reflect their race pace.
One fast lap is a problem, Joan Mir said. "With the used medium tire, I feel really good, really strong," he told reporters. "Especially in this track I'm so happy about this because tomorrow we will enjoy for sure. But I know that when I put the soft tire, I am not able to be competitive. I don't have grip with it. The bike just spins and I don't go forward."
Qualifying is the bugbear of the Ducatis as well, at least for anyone not named Jack Miller. Andrea Dovizioso believed he had good pace, but was incapable of squeezing out a single fast lap good enough to get him close to the front of the grid. "In FP4 our pace was pretty good and quite near the fastest so about that I’m happy," Dovizioso said. Unfortunately we could not make a lap time in the qualifying and I was struggling."
That would pose a problem, the factory Ducati rider said. "Very disappointed because it is very important to start at the front, especially when you are behind other riders here the heat from the other bikes affects the tires and the brakes so that is bad. I couldn’t be faster. I’m struggling when I have to push with the new tires, and with the used tire – when you have to be pretty smooth – then I am fast. The pace was good."
Jack Miller is in a better starting position, sitting fourth on the grid behind Quartararo, but his pace does not look quite the match for the Yamahas, nor for Dovizioso, who starts a couple of rows behind him. Cal Crutchlow sits beside Miller, with Valentino Rossi next to him, and three Yamahas ahead on the front row.
The race looks good for Yamaha, with both the factory and satellite riders dominating both practice and qualifying. The Petronas Yamaha team have had an outstanding home race, topping every session of practice and with both riders on the front row of the grid. Both Fabio Quartararo and Franco Morbidelli have good pace, and look set for a very good result.
There would be no better time or place for Quartararo to get his first win in MotoGP. Firstly, it would be vindication of the investment that Petronas and the Sepang circuit has made in MotoGP, and their decision to run the team and choose these two riders. Secondly, it would serve as a salutary lesson to Marc Márquez, that sometimes trying to play mind games with other riders can backfire. Márquez is smart enough to figure that out, and find other ways of winning. He is, after all, a six-time MotoGP champion, and the best rider in the world.
Two things look to be standing in the way of a Quartararo victory. The first is the insurmountable pace of Maverick Viñales, who is looking even stronger here than he did in Phillip Island, and has an advantage of a couple of tenths or more on everyone else. Viñales' biggest weakness is his starts and the first few laps.
But the Monster Energy Yamaha rider was not overly concerned. "Also in Phillip Island I didn’t start really well, but somehow I found the way to take the lead and push," Viñales told the press conference. "Here I will try to start on a good way, trying to be in the first places in the beginning of the race, and then we will see how we manage the tires."
The other possible obstacle to a Quartararo victory is more remote, but something we can never rule out. Marc Márquez may be starting from eleventh on the grid, but that is hardly likely to deter him. There is no doubt he will risk everything to make his way forward in the early laps, though whether that is the wisest option is open to question. Márquez sees gaps where others do not believe them to exist, and with so many riders ahead of him, the risk of an incident is great.
If it is dry, he may find it hard to catch the front runners given the pace of the Yamahas and the Suzukis. But if the heavens open, as they are want to do in the tropics, and the track is wet, or even better, half wet and half dry, anything is possible.
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