What did we learn from qualifying for the Grand Prix of Catalonia on Saturday? We learned that qualifying is extremely deceptive. The front of the grid is a mixture of riders who are genuinely fast on race pace, and riders who are only quick over a single lap. But what we also learned is that the track at Montmelo, outside Barcelona, is so hard on tires that qualifying is only a very small part of the story. It is uncertain whether where you qualify will have any bearing on the outcome of the race.
The problem at Barcelona is that the track is punishing on tires. You do not get to the end of the race with tire to spare. Indeed, you may not make it to the end of the race at all. "The last laps of the race, we will struggle not to make a lap time, we will struggle to stay on the bike," warned Pol Espargaro. "Maybe by the end of the race, it's not going to be who can perform better, who can be faster, I think by the end of the race it's going to be who takes more risk, who cares less about crashing."
Montmelo is always hard on tires, but this year there is an extra complication. Because the MotoGP teams decided that Michelin needed to nominate the allocation for every single circuit at the start of the year, before the first Grand Prix has even taken place, the French tire manufacturer has to make an educated guess at the conditions likely to prevail when the races are held. Normally, that is not too much of a problem, as the rounds are generally held around the same time each year.
The new abnormal
But "normally" is not a word which is getting much use in 2020. This is a season shaken up, shifted about, and shoved into a small space by the Covid-19 pandemic, and so races are being held at tracks in very different seasons, when very different conditions prevail.
Barcelona is a case in point: normally, MotoGP visits in the middle of June, when air temperatures tend to be in the high 20s Centigrade, with asphalt temperatures running into the 50s. In 2020, MotoGP is at the Circuit de Catalunya in late September, just as the summer starts to lose its grip, and the hot days fade. Add to that a weekend which is cooler than normal – a week ago exactly, when the WorldSBK class held their first race of the weekend, the air temperature was 28°C, and the track was 42°C; for MotoGP qualifying, temperature of both air and track was 6°C lower.
That starts to make the tire allocation which Michelin brought to Barcelona a tad optimistic. The soft and medium tires, front and rear, were capable of doing the race. But the lower temperatures rendered the hard tires almost unusable. "Unfortunately the hard front and hard rear, it looks like they are too hard for tomorrow's race," Michelin Motorsport manager Piero Taramasso said. "But as you know, we had to choose the tires a long time ago before the start of the season, and looking at statistics, we thought there would be more temperature, on the track and in the air, but that's not the case."
Folding fronts and managed rears
The end result of this has been twofold: firstly, a spate of crashes as overly optimistic riders try to push before the left-hand side of the front tire is warmed up, and end up in the gravel at Turn 2, Turn 5, Turn 10 when they forget that they don't have the same grip on the left as they do on the right before the tire is ready. And secondly, we are preparing for a war of attrition come Sunday. Nobody is going to be able to carry the same pace from start to finish.
The race on Sunday will resemble Danilo Petrucci's famous "short blanket", where riders have to decide whether to push at the start of the race, and hope for the best at the end, or exercise patience at the start, and hope the escaping riders don't build up too much of a gap to close down in the second half of the race.
It was, as usual, a thrilling qualifying session, Franco Morbidelli showing a return to form after an off weekend at the second race in Misano. The Petronas Yamaha SRT rider was the only man to get into the 1'38s, ending qualifying a full two tenths faster than the rider in second place, his teammate Fabio Quartararo. (As a side note, the fact that a gap of two tenths is regarded as large is a sign of just how close MotoGP is in 2020.) His 2021 teammate – Valentino Rossi's contract for next year was signed and announced an hour or so before qualifying commenced – took the final slot on the front row of the grid, his first front row since Silverstone last year, and a Yamaha lockout of the front row.
Behind the three Yamahas, a pair of Ducatis sandwich the fourth Yamaha of Maverick Viñales on the second row. Jack Miller starts from fourth, while Johann Zarco just pinched sixth spot from Pol Espargaro. The KTM rider is disappointed to be heading up the third row, ahead of the Suzuki of Joan Mir and the first factory Ducati of Danilo Petrucci.
The tortoise vs the hare
The grid is no reflection of the real speed of the riders, however. The Yamahas all have excellent pace, both on fresh rubber and on old tires, with Viñales, Quartararo, and Rossi the standouts. Pol Espargaro and Joan Mir are fast too, with race pace to match, and in the case of the KTM rider, perhaps even to beat the Yamahas.
Of the Ducatis, the rider with the best pace is back on the third row. Danilo Petrucci has learned not to try to solve his problems with changes to the electronics, but instead focus on chassis settings instead. That has helped him find some race pace, but it hasn't helped him put in a quick lap. Johann Zarco and Jack Miller have the opposite problem.
That left Pol Espargaro a little frustrated, finding himself stuck behind riders he knows he has much better pace than. "With a new tire, we don't get the extra grip we had in the other places," the Red Bull Factory KTM rider said. "For sure Ducati has this extra grip. We saw how bad the pace for example Jack and Johann had during FP4, but how fast they could be in one lap."
No repeat performances
The 2020 race will come down to tire management, was the unanimous consensus among the riders. It will most likely resemble the race here in 2017, which Andrea Dovizioso won convincingly by ensuring he was best able of maintaining his pace throughout the race, as others fell by the wayside.
That is not going to happen in 2020, the factory Ducati rider lamented. "I really would like to speak about that in a positive way like in the past, but the situation is completely different to the past," Dovizioso said. "You need the speed to save the tire and be strong at the end of the race and this is not our situation." His problem, as ever, was braking, and adapting to the 2020 Michelin tire. Dovizioso continues to make baby steps, but that may not be enough to bring him the title this year.
If not Dovizioso, who? Valentino Rossi has the pace, and is also a wily old hand when it comes to managing his tires. His problem in the past has always been starting from way down on the grid, an issue he won't face in Barcelona. "It's a good Saturday, because we started well from Friday," Rossi told the press conference. When we start already the bike was competitive and give me a good feeling. In FP4 with the used tire I have good pace. So starting from the front row is very important also because the first corner is very far. So we need to give the maximum from the beginning and try to make a good race."
Attack from the start
The other Yamahas will all share the same strategy. "The key with our bike is it's so important to make a good start," Fabio Quartararo said. "To be in the first positions in the first lap will be crucial. At the end if we look, the first two rows are really good for us because we have four Yamahas in the first six positions. So I’m really happy about these two front rows. Let’s try to make the best start I ever did on Sunday."
Maverick Viñales was even more explicit about his options on Sunday, starting from the second row. "I will attack from the start," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said. "I need to wake myself up very quick. I will try to do it in corner 1, 2, 3. Try to be fast."
The danger with starting quickly is that the tire drops off at the end of the race. That is not the case for Viñales, he says, the Spaniard finding it relatively easy to maintain his pace for a long time. "Honestly, quite good because in FP4 with 16 laps I was able to do 1'40s, and I was just doing my rhythm. I feel quite good and consistent with this bike. With 14 laps, I did a 1'40.4. Which is good. But we will see tomorrow, after Moto2 everything changes, I hope it changes for better."
In that respect, the Yamaha resembles the Suzuki. Though he was disappointed to be bumped down to eighth on the grid, Joan Mir was still confident in his pace. "I feel good with used tires," Mir said. "This track is not really grippy. Every one of us is struggling to have a good edge grip and drive grip. It's difficult here because the grip is a lot less than Misano. So it will be hard in the last 10 laps for everyone, but I think we will be able to manage."
Stuck behind a Ducati
Like Joan Mir, Pol Espargaro was frustrated to be starting on the third row. The KTM rider has excellent pace, but after finding himself stuck behind a Ducati at the first race in Misano, he was all too keenly aware of the importance of a starting position. "The thing is that the qualifying is always important, especially in MotoGP nowadays," Espargaro said. "The time you gain at the beginning, it's super important at the end of the race, because the less you need to stress the tire to get the lap time, because you have already done quite a lot at the beginning. You lose less by traffic or you can put your rhythm straight away."
Getting stuck behind a Ducati was pretty much the worst thing that could overcome him, Espargaro said. "Being behind Johann, for example, we have seen how difficult the race is after Misano 1, where I got stuck behind him and I couldn't really do anything to overtake because of the power."
Danilo Petrucci has to use the opposite approach. "I think for tomorrow it will be very important to manage the tire, especially at the beginning," the factory Ducati rider said. "Because the drop between a used tire and a new tire is about 2 seconds. And you can be very very good until ten laps to go, and then the situation can be a disaster. Because the bike with all these electronics cannot simply go faster exiting the corner."
That left Petrucci with just one strategy: to wait, and see how the race shakes out in the final laps. "I don't think it's a good idea to push at the beginning, even if I want to stay with the front guys, but I still have a lot of people behind me who are very fast," Petrucci said. "But our pace is not bad. For sure I have to be clear we won't be on the podium, because as I told you we suffer a lot the tire drop, but we can stay in the mix, and for sure on the last 10 laps of the race, we will have some surprises."
Soft or medium?
It looks like almost the entire field will use the soft rear tire, though the medium rear has some potential benefit. "For the rear I think that the choice is very open," Valentino Rossi said. "Soft is an option for sure, but also the medium rear is not so bad. The difference in the performance is not a lot. The race will be very long, so maybe with the medium at the end you can have a bit more stability. We will decide tomorrow."
Pol Espargaro would also have liked to evaluate the medium rear, but when he put a used rear which had sat in tire warmers since the morning session in the bike, he just couldn't get it up to temperature or make it work, he said. "When we use one tire in one session and then again in another one, for example a medium or soft, and you come into the pits and you go out, you feel a big drop," the KTM rider said." But if you even cool down the tire and warm it again, like it happened in FP4 with the rear tire, it's even worse. The tire becomes so hard and you never get a rhythm to put the temperature into the tire, and then it's just spinning, and you never bring the tire up."
That leaves Espargaro with a dilemma. He was fast on brand new rear tire, but it hadn't been possible to put a lot of laps on a new medium rear to see what the drop is like and compare it to the soft. "So we have this doubt about what will happen if instead of a used medium, we had a new medium, if it would work well, or if exactly the same thing would happen as with a reused tire," the factory KTM rider told us. "So at the end, we cannot risk it on the race."
A few riders might, gambling on staging a comeback once the early leaders start to struggle with their tires. The forecast is not looking promising for that gamble, cloud cover predicted to keep track temperatures down. But in the war of attrition the race is expected to be, it might still pay off.
Besides, this is 2020. If there is one thing we can be sure about this season, it is that things never work out the way you expect. So why not take a chance?
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