Saturday was a day for smashing records in Qatar. First up was the top speed record, Johann Zarco hitting 362.4 km/h at the end of the front straight during FP4. Not just the top speed record for Qatar, but the highest speed ever record at a MotoGP track, the previous record 356.7 set by Andrea Dovizioso at Mugello. To put that in to context, it is 100.666 meters per second. Or put another way, it took Johann Zarco less than one second to cover the distance which takes Usain Bolt 9.6 seconds. It is a mind-bending, brain-warping speed.
It is not necessarily the highest speed ever reached on a MotoGP machine. Years ago, there were rumors of Dani Pedrosa hitting 365 km/h on data at Mugello. Nobody would comment about it on the record at the time, though engineers would tell you privately that it might be an overestimation. At the end of the straight at Mugello, the bikes are still accelerating and over the crest the rear can get light and start to spin. That cost Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi their engines in 2016.
Which raises the issue with these speeds. 362.4 km/h is not a problem at Qatar. There are no grandstands at the end of the straight, so if the circuit needs more run off at Turn 1, they simply push back the wall even further. At Mugello, however, there is the small matter of a large hillside at the end of the gravel trap. Moving that to make more run off would be a very expensive exercise indeed. And Mugello doesn't have a nigh-on inexhaustible fund of gas dollars and a strong motivation to invest in sportswashing the abysmal human rights record of an autocratic regime.
Top speed has been an issue for the people who run MotoGP for as long as I have been in the paddock. In private and off-the-record discussions, the people involved in making the rules have expressed their concerns about rising top speeds, which inevitably leads to needing more and more run off. That threatens the future of some of the greatest motorcycling venues on the planet, such as Mugello, Phillip Island, and Barcelona, all of which have top speed records in the region of 350 km/h.
And none of which have the money to modify the layout to create extra run off, and do so again every decade or so when speed barriers are smashed once again. Despite the best efforts of track designers like Jarno Zaffelli, whose Dromo Studios uses sophisticated software to calculate how much run off is needed, and how to design gravel traps to such as much speed out of crashing machinery as possible and prevent them from hitting barriers.
It is an intractable problem. When officials got worried about the top speeds the first generation of 990cc MotoGP bikes were doing, they reduced engine capacity to 800cc. It took the smaller capacity bikes half a season to match the lap times and top speeds their bigger predecessors had achieved. Dorna found a "silver bullet", limiting the bikes to four cylinders and a maximum bore of 81mm, after the MSMA rejected the notion of a rev limit.
The thought was that physics would limit engine speeds to a maximum of around 16,500 rpm before pistons would start to separate themselves from connecting rods and drive themselves into cylinder heads. That massively underestimated the ingenuity of motorcycle engineers: I happened to once accidentally see the revs and gearing table for a satellite Ducati a few years ago. Even in 2017, the Ducati was revving to 18,000 rpm. And the engines are lasting for a couple of thousand of kilometers, and now hitting over 360 km/h.
A matter of opinion
The riders are divided on whether such speeds are a danger. "If we touched 360 km/h here it’s difficult to think about Mugello at 360," said Pecco Bagnaia. "I think it’s not more dangerous because we are seated on a very futuristic bike and everything is the best on our bikes."
Maverick Viñales, a more experienced MotoGP hand than third-year man Bagnaia, took a similar view. "I think now the result of safety, also with the Michelin tires, overall I think it’s quite safe," the factory Yamaha rider said. "As Pecco said, we will see in Mugello. If we are reaching now here in Qatar this top speed, in Mugello I don't know. It will be difficult to control the bike, but anyway I think everything is really safe. The track is very wide, and also as I mentioned the tires are working well. So it will be no problem."
The most experienced MotoGP hand of all viewed it another way. Valentino Rossi expressed concern over the rising speeds in his two decades in the premier class. "For me already after 330 km/h is very dangerous," Rossi said. "So 330 km/h or 360 km/h is already incredible number! I think that all the motorsport fans are very excited for these numbers, because it's impressive, but for sure this speed is dangerous."
There are no easy solutions. Even with the engines frozen for 2021, the manufacturers have found more speed thanks to aerodynamics. But as speeds continue to rise and run off becomes an issue at more and more tracks, at some point, it is an issue that will need to be addressed.
Getting a tow
Of course, the only reason Johann Zarco hit 362.4 km/h is firstly because he was in the slipstream of Enea Bastianini down the straight, and secondly because when he pulled out from behind the Esponsorama Ducati, he found himself going so fast that he missed his braking point and ran on into the gravel at Turn 1.
Both were necessary ingredients in reaching that speed, the Frenchman said. "Two things, the slipstream plus also braking late. You have to do the both things together." But they had an inkling that they could reach some phenomenal speeds. "We were thinking this 360 km/h was possible, but I didn't expect 362 km/h. So happy for it, because it's always a special moment."
The other reason for Zarco to be pleased with that top speed is he knows that it will make his life a good deal easier during the race on Sunday. " I see that even if I brake very early I have a good opportunity in the race that I never had before to see how I can control the speed in the straight to stay easily behind the other riders. That's the target," Zarco said. He can save his tires by sitting in the draft of slower riders, then at the end of the race, unleash the extra speed of the Ducati GP21 and leave them all for dead.
Energy saving scheme
It's not just tires he can save thanks to the extra speed, the Pramac Ducati rider explained. The additional speed meant he didn't have to push so hard to keep up with his rivals. "When I'm following someone during the race pace, or what I could see in FP4, I don't need to be at more than 100%, which was necessary last year just to follow, to give the best," Zarco explained. "So then I was getting tired and then using the tire too much to do all my best to stay. Now when I am pushing at this limit, it's to go pretty fast, but when you are a bit slower, then everything comes easier, and that is what I was looking for, and it seems like it is coming."
Zarco's top speed was not the only record to be broken. In the end, eight riders managed to beat Marc Márquez' outright lap record of 1'53.380 at the Losail circuit. Pecco Bagnaia was the first to slip under it, with a lap of 1'53.273 on just his second flying lap. By the end of the session, he would be joined by Fabio Quartararo, Maverick Viñales, Valentino Rossi, Jack Miller, Johann Zarco, Franco Morbidelli, and Aleix Espargaro, on Yamahas, Ducatis, and an Aprilia.
Bagnaia himself didn't just break Marc Márquez' lap record, he went on to shatter it entirely. The factory Ducati Lenovo Team rider put together a near-perfect lap on his final run to post a time of 1'52.772, smashing Márquez' record by six tenths of a second and becoming the first rider to lap the Losail International Circuit in under 1'53. Everyone believed that a 1'52 had been possible, but few expected that barrier to be breached quite so comprehensively.
Bagnaia's tutor also profited from the Ducati rider's incredible speed. Valentino Rossi found the tail of Bagnaia on his flying lap and followed him round to set his fastest ever time around the Qatar circuit, lapping under the time of his arch nemesis Marc Márquez.
Rossi acknowledged the help he had had from Bagnaia, but said it had not been prearranged. "With Pecco we don’t have a deal but we see in the track, the first time I was in front and after the second time he was in front and continued to push."
Bagnaia backed that up, telling the press conference that he was returning the favor after getting help from Rossi during the test. "I knew that he was there, but also in the first test he was in front of me. This was not planned. When I saw him behind me, I pushed at the same ,because I prefer to ride alone without anyone in front when I push at my 100% because I can make my lines and I can push more, I feel." It was something which we could see repeated, Bagnaia said. "For sure, we will speak because this strategy worked today. Maybe in the future we will do it again."
Giving a tow to Rossi hadn't impeded Bagnaia from taking pole, and the Petronas Yamaha rider was magnanimous in acknowledging the achievement of Bagnaia, a scion of the VR46 academy. "I have to say great congratulations for his first pole position, he ride very well and it's the perfect way to start his season."
Rossi may find himself with a strong starting position, but his race pace still leaves a lot to be desired. During FP4, the Italian was a second or so off the pace of the man at the other end of the second row. Johann Zarco, despite qualifying sixth, appears to have the best race pace for Sunday, running in the mid 1'54s on tires with a lot of laps on them.
Pace vs speed
Indeed, comparing the pace of riders from FP4 with their qualifying positions on the grid paints two very different pictures. Johann Zarco, Maverick Viñales, and Fabio Quartararo posted very fast times on used tires, and start from sixth, third, and second respectively. But Miguel Oliveira, Joan Mir, Alex Rins, and Franco Morbidelli were also quick, and Oliveira will be starting from fifteenth on the grid, the Suzukis from tenth and ninth respectively, and Morbidelli the worst Yamaha starting from seventh. Aleix Espargaro is also a factor, the Aprilia rider running high 1'54s on tires with about half race distance on them.
Testing used tires is always important, but at Qatar, it is absolutely crucial. There is a reason that Andrea Dovizioso has done so well at Losail in the past: the Italian was a master at slowing up a race and managing his tires, before taking advantage of having more tire left than his rivals.
Sunday's race will follow a similar pattern. The rider with the most tire left over at the end will have the best chance of victory. The problem comes in working out the best way to get through the 21 laps which precede the final lap. Do you make a bolt for it early on, try to open a gap, and then hang on in the second half of the race? Or do you sit behind the other riders, and hope they burn up their tires more trying to drop you than you are doing in trying to hang on to their tails?
"Here the race is very long so strategy you can think in two ways," Maverick Viñales told the qualifying press conference. "You can think to push the last ten laps or the first ones. Anyway, the last ten laps here have been always very critical for the tire."
Teammate Fabio Quartararo underlined the importance of a good start and a strong pace in the opening laps. "Now my goal is to make great the first laps, a great start. I think that we need to be aggressive from the beginning. I’ve been doing some overtakes in the test that I think we are quite good, so I think that the first five laps will be so important and then we will see."
Knowing where to overtake, and how it affects the tires, would be key to having tire left at the end of the race, Viñales reiterated. "We need to understand how to manage the grip during all the race and how to overtake without burning the tire. We want to try to be smart. It depends how the start goes. You want to choose one plan or the other."
For Alex Rins, starting from ninth, making a plan which might work is even trickier. The Suzuki is notoriously bad at qualifying, so the third row was no disaster, but neither was it what Rins had hoped for. "Not fantastic but not bad," was how Rins characterized it.
Rins' hope is that the closeness of the field will open up options for him at the start of the race. But with only FP4 as a real guide to race pace – the heat of the day makes FP3 a waste of rubber and gasoline in terms of race setup – it was hard to know where his rivals stand.
"I tried to make a bit of a plan with Manu, with my engineer, and it was difficult, because the pace is still not clear from the other guys," Rins said. "I think it will be very difficult to make all the race in 1'54 medium, 1'54 low. So for sure we need to make a strategy, because if we push a lot from the beginning, we will destroy the tires." And if that plan didn't work? "If this plan doesn't work, Plan B is going full gas!"
Teammate and reigning champion Joan Mir is in a slightly less optimistic mood, having struggled in braking for most of practice. "We are not fast enough," Mir said. "I was struggling a lot all weekend to stop the bike. I’m really on the limit on the brakes and going into the corners. First we have to fix that. And then if you look at the lap times of everybody, I think first I was not really consistent on my lap times, because I was making one sector good, one not, I was over-trying, I was too aggressive probably. That made everything much worse."
Jack of all trades
After dominating the tests, qualifying went much worse for Jack Miller. The factory Ducati rider will start the race from fifth, the middle of the second row. But he brushed off any suggestion that this was a disappointment. "I think the expectation was from you guys," the Australian said. "P5 is relatively fine for me. The Ducati is a rocket ship off the start line for sure I’ll be In the top two by turn 1. I’m not too stressed."
Miller was happy enough with how his day had gone. "Pretty happy with my performance. I was under the lap record. Just wasn’t able to put it together on the second tire." That was not an insurmountable problem, however. "The race is tomorrow. We’re in a fantastic position. For sure I want more, but I’m not disappointed. I would be if I was on the fourth row, but I'm on the second row, under the lap record. But I definitely felt I had more in the tank. It’s making me even more eager to start tomorrow’s race."
Miller wasn't worried by the incredible pace the Yamahas had shown, he said. "Look at the past years," he pointed out. "The Yamaha is always fantastic with pace, with lap times, with everything. We’ll see how much of improvement they’ve made. But look back at the past. Dovi was doing 1'56s sitting in the back of the pack for a fair bit of the race and worked his way to the front."
The Australian was also hoping the wind would be a factor. "We’ll see what the conditions are tomorrow. It will be windy. Hopefully there will be a head wind. We’ll see how much sand there is. The sand will create even more tire wear. We’ll have to manage them as best as we can. It’ll be like Phillip Island. You can’t push to the limit, otherwise you can’t finish the race."
Whatever the weather on Sunday, the race is almost certain to happen, given that the wind is not set to die down until the middle of the week. But a race that was already expected to be something of a strategic battle is likely to become even more of a game of cat and mouse. Picking a winner? There are too many confounding factors to expose a clear favorite. But if Johann Zarco ends up on the top step of the box and taking a debut win, that would be perhaps the least surprising result from a wide range of possibilities.
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