It looked like we would have another twist in this weird and unsettling season this morning. At Turn 14, the current MotoGP championship leader's Yamaha M1 got a little squirrelly as he rode over the kerbs. A little too squirrelly, the front stepping out and then the rear gripping and flicking Fabio Quartararo up into the air, and down onto his left hip. When the Frenchman finally slid to a halt, he struggled to get up, clearly in enormous pain. He was stretchered into a waiting ambulance, and taken off to the medical center.
For a while, it looked like this could be a serious blow to Quartararo's title chances, handing the advantage to Joan Mir. But scans and X-rays revealed that the Petronas Yamaha rider had gotten off relatively lightly, with only bruising and a hematoma in his left hip. A match for the bruise to his right hip suffered in a crash on Friday morning.
Hospital to rostrum
Quartararo limped out of the medical center on crutches, and clearly had difficulty walking to his bike for the start of FP4. He took an extra lap to find his rhythm again, but was soon pounding out laps in the low 1'49s, setting pace that was second only to Maverick Viñales. Half an hour later, he fired out a blistering lap to take pole, his third of the season and ninth in MotoGP. He had gotten away with it, and come up smelling of roses.
"I was a little bit scared because in the moment was really painful," Quartararo said about the crash in the press conference. "Honestly when I’m on the bike is just the out lap and in lap where I felt bad. But when I do the FP4 was a pain that was constant. Was not really bad. When I’m riding it’s not so painful. When you are thinking in other things it’s more painful, but as soon as you have the leather and the helmet you forget about everything."
The last two times Quartararo departed from pole as at the first two races of the MotoGP season at Jerez, the Frenchman working his way forward in the first, and leading lights to flag in the second. At Barcelona, Quartararo's third victory of the 2020 season, he started from second on the grid. The scene is set fair for the Frenchman to extend his advantage in the championship tomorrow, an almost miraculous escape should he pull it off.
It is ridiculously premature to be handing the winner's trophy to Fabio Quartararo at this stage, however. The Frenchman may have good pace, but in FP4, the session where riders concentrate on running long stints of laps to assess race setup, rather than chase a single fast lap, twelve riders finished within a third of a second of fastest man Franco Morbidelli. Four different manufacturers filled the first four places, two tenths between Morbidelli and Pol Espargaro in fourth – and half of that gap was Morbidelli's advantage over Alex Márquez on the Honda in second.
Yes, Alex Márquez: the Repsol Honda rider is starting to come into his own, making it straight through to Q2 for the first time, and his best qualifying performance of the season. Márquez was disappointed to qualify only in eleventh. "In the Q2, I expected maybe more grip, especially initial grip than we had. So it was really strange to not get the grip and not feel that a new tire was better than a used one," the Spaniard said. "But we need to be happy, it's true that we expected a little bit more after the good FP4, and because we have a really good pace for the race."
The difference for the Hondas and the KTMs was being able to run the medium front tire in the afternoon, as temperatures rose and Friday's icy wind had died down. The shifted schedule – the morning practice had started an hour later than scheduled, qualifying 40 minutes later – meant conditions were far more favorable. Turn 2 was no longer the gamble it had been on Friday, and Quartararo's crash at Turn 14 was not the kind of instant folding of the front wheel which had happened so often the day before. Compared to the eight crashers in MotoGP on Friday, there were only the two, Quartararo and Andrea Dovizioso, on Saturday.
Dovizioso was furious on Saturday afternoon, though his anger had nothing to with the crash. Instead, his ire was aimed at his teammate, Danilo Petrucci, who had kept him out of Q2 by posting a quick lap in Q1 after following Dovizioso on his fast lap. "I was disappointed because I don't think Danilo did the right things," Dovizioso said. "He didn’t have the speed to be there. He followed me 3 times. He did his lap time behind me."
Dovizioso felt that Petrucci should have been more considerate of his championship chances. "I’m the only Ducati rider able to fight for the championship," Dovizioso said. "It wasn’t a smart move. So I was angry about that." But there were no team orders, nor was this anything they had discussed. "We don’t have to make agreement. Just think in a smart way. I did my lap time. If you want to make a lap time you will do. But not against me. And you make it because you follow me. I think it’s stupid if you’re fighting about the championship."
Danilo Petrucci, unsurprisingly, saw it rather differently. "I got no let's say information or advice, nothing, just doing my best," the Italian said. He acknowledged using his teammate for a tow, but only because he was so down on top speed. "For sure I used Andrea like a target, but it's like in Barcelona and since yesterday that I lose almost 5 to 8 km/h on the straight, so I need a slipstream to not lose too much. I'm so sorry for Andrea that lost his access to Qualifying 2 but if not I have to answer your question why I am not into Qualifying 2."
Fixing a bad situation
Petrucci returned to this point later. "As I told you I think we are free to race and it's a qualifying and I used all my weapons to get into Qualifying 2," he emphasized. "For sure we are struggling, in Le Mans I was not struggling and I didn't follow anyone like I did in the past, but we have no team orders. I'm so sorry Andrea is out of Qualifying 2, but if not I'd have to answer the question why I am so slow. I'm racing for myself and I'm recovering from a bad first part of the season and I have to use all of the chance I have."
Petrucci has a point. And the point he has underlines exactly where the problem lies: Danilo Petrucci may have prevented Andrea Dovizioso from passing through to Q2, but Dovizioso was only in that position because he had ended up in Q1 in the first place. The Ducatis had struggled on Friday, having trouble with the wind. Things had improved on Saturday morning, though Dovizioso's crash made life difficult for him. The lost time left him fifteen hundredths shy of Q2, but he took confidence from his pace.
"We stayed calm after the crash of this morning," Dovizioso said. "We worked very well in the afternoon. We showed good speed in FP4. With a used medium it was a really good pace. We went to qualifying with a good feeling. I did a really good lap time. I would have been able to be a bit faster in Q2. I wanted to be on the first two rows." He may have wanted that – and his lap time in Q1 would have been good enough for seventh place – but first, you have to make it into Q2. Not making it through directly from Free Practice leaves you a hostage to fortune.
Qualifying positions will be important, but they won't be the final word. The Aragon circuit is abrasive, and tends to produce high tire wear. The soft rear is the best option for the race, because of the performance in the first few laps. But the end of the race will be a struggle, will be about who can manage the rear to get to the end.
Takaaki Nakagami's explanation of his tire choice process was typical of others. "I think the race will be front medium, and I don't know about the rear," the LCR Honda rider said.
I think most of the riders will use soft and we will as well, but it's really difficult after 15 laps. The last 5 laps to go will destroy the tire, because in FP4 we kept I think 22 or 23 laps, and the last 5 laps was so difficult. A lot of vibration and pumping, and it's so difficult to keep the pace."
That should be music to the ears of Joan Mir. The Suzuki GSX-RR is famous for being gentle on tires and having lots of grip to spare at the end of the race – just think of Barcelona, when Mir and teammate Alex Rins closed down Fabio Quartararo in the final laps. "The reality is no one tried to make a lot of laps with the tire," Mir said. "All the runs are like 17 or 15 laps. No one tried to make 23 with the the same tires. It will be interesting in the race to see how our performance will be at the end. I expect a good one."
That left him optimistic. "Can be a good opportunity," Mir opined. "I feel strong on my lap pace. In FP4 I work with really used tires and I was able to be constant in good lap times. I don’t know what to expect for tomorrow. All three Yamaha guys are especially competitive and it will be a great fight tomorrow. Let’s see if we can be with those guys."
Yamaha clean sweep?
Mir has a point about all three Yamaha riders being fast. Maverick Viñales, Franco Morbidelli, and Fabio Quartararo all have strong pace, but it is Viñales who Morbidelli is most afraid of. "Nobody knows what will happen after 15 laps," the Petronas Yamaha rider said. "It is a concern – tire degradation on this track this weekend. That will be a factor. That will be a key of this race. We saw Maverick was able to maintain a really good pace after 16 laps. At the moment he’s the man. But also him, he has some laps missing. Nobody knows."
Tire degradation was something Viñales had spent a lot of time on. "I was determined to make a good rhythm because last year we suffered a lot in the second part of the race but this year somehow we found something more, especially for the last ten laps which is always really positive because we need an extra if we need to fight with someone," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider explained. "This is clear that we found something, especially on the electronics. Tomorrow we try to be smooth, especially trying to don’t make any mistakes. I will try to be aggressive and attack from the first corner. We have the championship leader just on the side, so we just need to go for him and then we will try to make a good rhythm."
Viñales' overall pace was a concern for Fabio Quartararo as well. "Our tire choice is not clear and we have many things to do on the bike and on the riding style, because we are fast the first ten laps but then we are struggling more compared to Maverick, who was much more consistent than us," the Frenchman said. "In the afternoon he was really fast so we have already my engineer and crew chief analyzing everything to see where we can improve."
Watch the Hondas
It won't necessarily be a battle of Joan Mir vs the Yamahas, however. The Hondas are strong at Aragon, even without Marc Márquez. A new rear shock from Öhlins, being used by most bikes on the grid now, seems to have helped the Honda slightly more, giving them more grip and reducing weight transfer to the front.
"One thing is that this track works pretty well for Honda's bike, it's quite easy to make a lap time, and less problems," Takaaki Nakagami explained. "Also another thing, the new shock from Öhlins, is a slightly better feeling for me and also for Cal, I think he used it. And these small details are really important in MotoGP, and the lap time is so close, if you gain like one tenth each lap, this makes a really big gap at the end of the race."
And of course, Cal Crutchlow departs from the front row of the grid, for the first time since Austin last year. "I’m not really a great qualifier," the LCR Honda rider acknowledged. "In these last two or three years I haven’t been great at qualifying so it’s nice to be on the front row with these two guys." But Crutchlow also has great pace, though how his arm, still recovering from surgery, holds up will be important. "It’s still not 100%, but it’s recovered a little bit. In Le Mans I felt better and this weekend I feel better again."
The improvement was not down to a new chassis, however, as some had speculated the Honda riders might have been using. "No, we haven't been trying any chassis," Alex Márquez responded, surprised to be asked about a new frame. "We are working for the future, but we don't have a new chassis, no."
A slowly developing story
Though there are not very many places to pass at Aragon, this still doesn't feel like a race which is going to be decided in the first laps. Tire management will be crucial at the end, the extent of the performance drop for the rear tires being decisive at the end. Michelin expect that the advantage of the soft rear in the early laps will outweigh the extra endurance of the medium rear in the later laps, but it might still be a factor. But understanding and managing will be key.
On paper, this could be a race for Maverick Viñales, especially given the short run to Turn 1, giving the Spaniard less room to make a mess of his start and get passed by all and sundry. But Joan Mir starts on the second row, and the last time he did that was in Austria where he looked very strong, and the Suzuki fares best toward the end of races. Even Andrea Dovizioso, starting way down in thirteenth, still has a chance, if he can pull of another miracle of race management.
Above all, though, this is 2020. It is all just too weird to be predictable. The one lesson of this year is that the only thing we can do is to wait and see, because 2020 always finds a way to surprise us. Alex Márquez victory, anyone?
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