They say that the joy of motorcycle racing is that the rider matters so much. There have been various percentages bandied about over time, the most recent, and most reasonable and widely accepted, from Valentino Rossi's former crew chief Jeremy Burgess, who put the ratio at 70% rider, 30% bike. In reality, of course, putting percentages on the relative importance of rider versus machine is a necessarily imprecise art. But given all we know of the difference in performance and results between teammates and riders on the same machine, that seems entirely reasonable.
Then you get to a track like Misano, and the circuit proceeds to make a mockery of such truisms. After the two qualifying sessions on Saturday, the grid for Sunday's race consists of four Yamahas, followed by two Ducatis, followed by two Suzukis, then two more Ducatis, and then two KTMs. Only from the fifth row of the grid does it get a little more mixed up.
You would almost start to believe that the bikes are starting to matter more than the rider at some tracks. After all, the first two races at Jerez saw the same two riders start from first and second on the grid, and finish in first and second place in both races, in the same order.
Does the rider matter less now? It seems a little premature to be leaping to that kind of a conclusion. What is obvious is that the Yamahas work exceptionally well around Misano: the only session where Yamahas didn't finish at least first and second was Q1, and that was because none of the Yamahas needed to pass through Q1 to get to Q2.
Fits like a glove
Part of the reason the Yamahas are so fast at Misano is because they are so good over the bumps, but the layout of the circuit helps too. "What I think is that when I pass across the bumps the bike is very smooth and I can carry on a lot of speed," pole sitter Maverick Viñales told the qualifying press conference. "I think that this track makes us very strong because you need a lot of flow, especially sector one and sector three and four. It’s what the Yamaha bike likes, to arrive, to go fast in the corner, and to be smooth."
That doesn't explain why the other bikes are lined up in pairs behind the Yamahas, though. Franco Morbidelli and Fabio Quartararo, the other two Yamahas on the front row, had their own theories, however. "I think that today all riders did a great job," Morbidelli said. "If there is such a schematic chart is because every rider got really close to the limit of his machine. So I think that’s because many riders did a great job today."
Quartararo pointed to the results at the Red Bull Ring. "It’s like Austria. If you check the result at the end of the second race was KTM, Ducati, Suzuki, and depends which track we are riding our bike is better or not." The reason for the four Yamahas at the front is because they are coming off three very difficult races at two very difficult tracks, the Petronas Yamaha SRT rider said. "When you came from three races where you have been slow for some reason and you arrive in a track that you really have the potential for the win, all four riders of Yamaha push at the limit to be there and feel again that we have the potential for the win. So I think one of the explanations is that we all suffered during these races, and when you’re finally back to a track that you can feel that you can have the potential, feel good on the bike, and you can finally have fun."
So are the Yamahas the favorites to win? Based on race pace, it is hard to see who else could take victory from them. Race pace in FP4 – always the best guide to who has genuine speed over race distance, rather than just punching in a quick lap with fresh tires and an almost empty fuel tank – shows Fabio Quartararo and Maverick Viñales capable of running mid 1'32s on used tires, a couple of tenths quicker than the rest. Behind them, a second group consisting of Franco Morbidelli on the second Petronas Yamaha, Alex Rins and Joan Mir on the Suzukis, Red Bull KTM's Pol Espargaro, and Pecco Bagnaia on the Pramac Ducati, all able to run high 1'32s. Then, Andrea Dovizioso and Valentino Rossi who look capable of posting consisting 1'33.0s.
Of course, that presupposes that everyone gets away at the start in the order they lined up on the grid. The various holeshot devices sprinkled around the grid may throw a spanner in the works there. "I think Jack [Miller] is fifth, so with the rocket launcher for sure he will be there in the first corner," Quartararo pointed out. "We know that he always does some great starts so will be important to try to not to lose so much time."
The Yamahas, too, now have holeshot devices, with Franco Morbidelli getting the gadget which lowers the rear of the M1 ready for the start in Austria, and having it in Misano. "I got the start device from Yamaha, so big up for Yamaha and thanks to them for that," Morbidelli said. "I have it since Austria. It was a good step for the starts especially."
A further complication will be tire choice. All three tires are eminently raceable, as FP4 demonstrated. Maverick Viñales, Pecco Bagnaia, Valentino Rossi, and Andrea Dovizioso swapped between the soft and the hard rears, Pol Espargaro alternated between soft and medium, while Quartararo tried both the hard and the medium. Even the two Suzuki riders had radically different strategies: Alex Rins tried all three tires, while Joan Mir stuck with the same medium rear throughout the session.
Michelin's Piero Taramasso explained that tires have been performing well after the MotoGP bikes laid down some rubber on the first day. There is no real drop in performance for any of the tires, and all three will easily last the race. Riders have to pick a strategy, and decide what benefits they want: the soft has the most potential, Taramasso explained, but starts to move around after a few laps. The medium has the grip, and is more stable compared to the soft. The hard has plenty of grip and is more consistent than the other two tires, its strongest point being traction, which remains constant over race distance. The downside is that it takes two to three laps to get up to temperature.
So the riders will have to pick their poison, and hope to exploit the strengths of their particular choice. That could make for an intriguing race between some riders, as the varying strategies which each tire offers collide at different points in the race.
The superiority of the Yamahas is accepted by everyone not on a Yamaha. "The problem is that everybody is riding quite fast and especially the Yamahas," Pol Espargaro said. "They are untouchable here and I have no idea how to fight them, especially starting from the third row. It is almost impossible for us. We will see them riding away and we’ll just need to wait for some mistake from their side." Suzuki's Joan Mir saw something similar. "The Yamahas made a big step here, we know that they are really really fast. We can see all four in the top four, so this means they are competitive."
What was the advantage of the Yamahas? Perhaps the fact that they use the front to steer the bike rather than the rear, Jack Miller posited. "Yamaha rely a lot on front, more than us," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "When I started doing that, it seemed to be a bit better but still there. If you can take a bit of weight off the rear, mid corner, maybe it’d help. It is weird. Not sure if it’s engine character because it’s not even on the gas, more a weight distribution thing more than anything."
What of the rest? Misano needs a bike which doesn't get upset over the bumps and can handle the flowing corners. Apart from the Yamaha, that description also fits the Suzuki, though the difference is that the Yamaha does all that much better, according to Alex Rins. "I rode a few laps with Maverick, and it looks like they have really good grip on maximum angle and also on the bumps it looks like their bike is more stable than our bike."
The Ducatis are pretty good around Misano as well, as demonstrated by the fact that they have four bikes in the top ten. The problem for the Ducatis is the first sector, according to Jack Miller. "A lot of the issues I’m having are in sector 1," he said. "The first one I tried to be aggressive on the throttle between Turn 1 to 2 and from 2 to 3. Every time I did so I’d get it right on the fullest lean angle and the thing would let go. On the next run I tried to carry more corner speed. I let the brakes go, let it roll and carried corner speed rather than accelerate. Even then it tried to high side me when I was off gas, off brakes, just rolling. It goes to a point and snaps back." The rest of the lap was pretty good, with the exception of Turn 11, where the wind was coming into play.
For Danilo Petrucci, the issue was not being able to choose the right front tire. "We started with the medium, and it was OK for turning the bike but not for stopping. I need a hard tire for turning and a soft one for stopping!" the factory Ducati rider joked. It was like sleeping under a short blanket, he said, where you can choose to cover your shoulders and let your feet get cold, or cover your feet and expose your chest and shoulders to the cold night air. "I tried to fix the problem but then discovered others."
The KTMs appear to have pretty strong pace, especially in the hands of Pol Espargaro, but their problem is where they qualified. Catching them while starting from the third row is a massive task. Despite that his pace was good, Espargaro explained. "I was not too bad, the rhythm was nice. To keep the 1'33.0 was not easy but I could manage to make it. Then I finished with 1'32.7 with 23 laps on the tire which was fantastic."
The other Espargaro at Aprilia had a similar problem. The Aprilia rider failed to get through to Q2 at the first attempt, and so is starting from thirteenth. But even the split qualifying system belies just how close the field is. "I can't be happy with my position obviously, but just two tenths from second row, which is nothing." Aleix Espargaro is just over half a second off Franco Morbidelli's second place on the grid, and under nine tenths off Maverick Viñales' new record setting pole time. The first five rows, from Viñales to Petrucci in fifteenth, is covered by 1.007 seconds.
Honda's Via Dolorosa
If the Yamaha is the bike best capable of handling the unique nature of the Misano circuit, the Honda is its polar opposite. The bike is difficult enough to manage on a smooth track, but on a bumpy circuit which requires a lot of corner speed, it is a handful. Honda had their worst ever qualifying, with no Honda in the first twelve on the grid for the first time since they returned to premier class racing in 1982.
The bumps make the bike very difficult to ride, explained both Takaaki Nakagami and Alex Márquez. The Repsol Honda rider described in some detail his issues. "I'm fighting quite a lot with the bike. This bike with the bumps is so unpredictable," the younger Márquez brother said. "It's so difficult to control, especially in the fast corners and fast part of the track. It's difficult to be always in the same rhythm. OK, if I have somebody in front, everything becomes a little bit easier, but alone it's quite difficult to control the bike."
With the Honda RC213V reacting so unpredictably over the bumps, that made stringing together a consistent lap in qualifying extremely difficult. "We got some good information from FP4, but in one lap, I was not able to put everything together again. The bike is so unpredictable, so it's difficult for me to know the limit in one lap. And for that reason, I did too many mistakes, I didn't do all the partials in one lap, and I'm last."
That unpredictability, the aggressive reaction over the bumps, and having to fight the bike to control it, had cost Cal Crutchlow dearly. The LCR Honda rider had suffered arm pump throughout this season, kicked off at Jerez when he broke his right scaphoid and had to overcompensate with his left arm, and had undergone surgery to remove the fascia, the sheath which keeps the muscles in his forearm together.
It is a proven technique, but it requires time for the arm to recover, more like six weeks than the couple of days which Crutchlow had given it. He had tried to ride at Misano, but the build up of fluid in his arm was too much, and with a high risk of infection, he had been advised by doctors not to ride. So Crutchlow is out until Barcelona at least.
Despite his struggles, Crutchlow told reporters that the Honda felt better at Misano than it had at some other tracks because of the grip of the new surface. That compensated for the lack of grip which the 2020 RC213V has. "We have no grip this year on corner entry and mid corner. The bike in deceleration doesn’t brake well and doesn’t accelerate well. That’s the 2020 Honda. Yes, it’s shaking. But you’ve got to hold on to it, tight and get to grips with it. The bumps were bad, sure. Back straight they were bad, T9 in 6th gear and the handlebars are coming out of your hands…"
Eggs, basket, etc
HRC are suffering the consequences of their chosen strategy. They listened to Marc Márquez, the rider who has won them six championships in the previous seven seasons, who just wanted a bike that was fast enough to match the top speed of the Ducatis. The rest, he would figure out for himself, he told Honda.
Unfortunately, Marc Márquez is the only rider capable of figuring it out. The Repsol Honda team languishes at the bottom of the team standings, and only Takaaki Nakagami is sparing their blushes by keeping them ahead of Aprilia in the manufacturers standings, but Nakagami is riding a 2019 bike. Team principal Alberto Puig is sticking firmly to the company line that the bike has potential, and it is the fault of the riders that they cannot unlock it like Marc Márquez can.
That overlooks the fact that the elder Márquez is a generational talent, a rider capable of doing things on motorcycle which are well beyond the reach of mere mortal MotoGP riders. The championship standings tell a different tale though. And things won't get better again until Márquez returns. Given the nature of his injury, that is more likely to be the last few races than any time before that.
If Honda wants some insurance in case Márquez is forced to miss races again in the future, they will need to make the bike easier to use. There is a test at Misano on Tuesday, at which the Honda riders will have a chance to try some of the ideas HRC has for addressing this. "I think it will be more trying more things for the future, to see the way to make a little bit more of an easier bike, and to try to improve for sure," Alex Márquez said. "But also there will be some things that we can use directly this year, so I hope that something will work and we can improve a little bit." If they can't, 2020 is going to be a very long, and very painful year for Honda.
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