Time, tide, and race day wait for no one, to paraphrase an old adage. Trite as it may seem, that can become incredibly visceral in a sport like MotoGP. Qualifying happens at 14:35 local time on Saturday, unless the climate or conditions intervene. Sunday is race day, and the flag drops whether you are there or not.
Mostly, we just gloss over this, disregarding how much pressure it puts on teams and riders. But then something like Aleix Espargaro's crash in FP4 happens, and you are confronted with just how harsh the life of an elite athlete can be.
Espargaro suffered a huge highside at Farm, Turn 12 in the early moments of FP4. The Aprilia rider was on his second flying lap after leaving the pits with a brand new hard rear slick when the rear slid, then bit and flicked him into the sky. He landed as badly as you might expect from such a highside, his body slamming into the tarmac, saved from worse injury by the airbag, which inflated with enough power to force the zip on his leathers open.
Espargaro lay on the tarmac for a long time, conscious but clearly in pain. He was stretchered away, but soon after was seen hobbling around behind the barriers. He was taken to the Medical Center, where they found nothing broken, but his heels badly bruised, especially on his right foot. He hobbled back out again, back into the pits, and prepared himself to try to ride during qualifying. Qualifying would happen whether he was ready or not. So he might as well be ready, even if he was in pain.
Here, the true mental strength of elite athletes comes through. Espargaro sat as they prepared his second Aprilia RS-GP – the first bike was destroyed in the crash – and got ready to go out for Q2. On his first run, he was clearly feeling his way around, putting a 1'59.910 – a respectable race pace, but nowhere near good enough for qualifying.
Espargaro came in, remained seated on the bike as his team fitted a new soft rear tire, then went out once again. This time he pushed, smashing Marc Marquez' lap record from 2019 by two tenths of a second, and becoming the first motorcycle rider to lap Silverstone under 1'58, setting a time of 1'57.966.
That Espargaro can do that is testament to his mental resilience. The ability to shut out everything, including physical pain, is one of the more remarkable characteristics of elite athletes. It displays incredible psychological strength, though whether it is physically healthy or wise is an entirely different conversation which riders try to postpone until after their retirement.
Under normal circumstances, 1'57.966 would be good enough for pole. But the move from the end to the beginning of August puts Silverstone at the height of the English summer, and conditions are near perfect. So despite Espargaro's incredible lap time, he will start from just sixth on the grid. Five other riders dipped into the 1'57s, with Johann Zarco leading the way, ahead of Espargaro's Aprilia teammate Maverick Viñales, Ducati's Jack Miller, reigning champion Fabio Quartararo, and Assen winner Pecco Bagnaia.
Espargaro's time might have been good, but Zarco's was utterly astounding. The Pramac Ducati rider crossed the line in 1'57.767, fully four tenths faster than Marc Marquez' previous record from 2019. In fact, the entire top eight went faster than Marquez' time, including rookie Marco Bezzecchi and Gresini rider Enea Bastianini. Zarco's Pramac teammate Jorge Martin came up just 0.006 short of Marquez' time from 2019.
The pace of progress at Silverstone has been astonishing. After the second resurfacing of the track (made necessary by the fiasco of 2018, when the track proved incapable of moving water in the rain and the race was called off), Marquez improved his 2017 lap record by 1.773 seconds in 2019. But in two more visits – MotoGP skipped Silverstone during the pandemic year of 2020 – the bikes have dropped another 0.4 from the lap record. A small part of that comes from Michelin's new rear tire, but the vast majority comes from the improvement in aerodynamics and ride-height devices. The bikes are faster now than they have ever been, breaking not just the 1'58 barrier but also exceeding an average lap speed of 180km/h, Zarco rattling around Silverstone at an average of 180.3 km/h.
Why did Aleix Espargaro crash there? "I was feeling good on the bike, pushing hard, and the high side was rather violent," the Spaniard was quoted as saying in a press release. (Espargaro skipped media activities to rest and recover in the hope of being fit enough to race on Sunday). Feeling good had betrayed him, at a tricky point of the track.
Farm, or Turn 12, is only the second left turn since the Maggots/Becketts complex at Silverstone, a distance getting on for 3 kilometers. From Turn 6, Chapel, to Farm, there is one long straight, two short straights, and four right handers. There is also the tight left at Vale, Turn 8. But the left hand side of the tire has had plenty of time to cool off, before entering the 170 km/h left at Farm.
Andrea Dovizioso was not surprised to see Espargaro crash where he did. Of the 20 crashes across all three classes so far this weekend, 9 had taken place at Farm, though Espargaro was the only rider to fall there in MotoGP. "Normally, everyone crashes on the front, because you have a cold tire," Dovizioso said. "But Michelin is working well, so you didn't see a crash from a MotoGP rider. Just Moto2 and Moto3."
The risk for MotoGP riders was getting on the gas, rather than on entry, Dovizioso explained. "On exit, it's so easy to make a highside, because you have to open the throttle and keep a lot of angle, and I think he was using the hard tire, and if you lose the grip with that angle, you are not able to control and you can make a highside. So that is the characteristic of the corner."
What does Espargaro's crash mean for the race? If he has a reasonable night (his wife posted a photo of him with two iced ankles up on a pillow in bed) and painkillers help, then he will race. It will be long and hard, Silverstone a very demanding track, but it is also a race of attrition, with tire management being key to lasting the race. So it would be foolish to rule anything out.
Fabio Quartararo, the man leading the championship, certainly wasn't doing that. "No, it will not change," he responded when asked if Espargaro's crash changed anything about the race. The Frenchman pointed to just how close everything was, despite the crash and the struggles Pecco Bagnaia had been having in practice. "Bagnaia is 0.00 something behind me. Aleix crashed but on the time attack just after he was 0.00 something close to me. So I mean, this is an individual sport and you have to think only about yourself, but it's great that Aleix has not a big injury after this big crash."
With teammate Maverick Viñales on the front row, and having previously pledged to help his teammate where he can, the second Aprilia rider has a chance to lend a hand. But Viñales was very clear about his best option for assisting Espargaro in the title chase. "The best way to help is to stay in front. I think this is the best way to help Aprilia."
He hadn't discussed it with Aprilia, he insisted. "We didn’t talk about nothing. At the end, it’s a question of being on the position that maybe I can help Aleix, but on my mind right now is the way I want to go on the race. Trying to take as soon as I can the first places and push very hard."
The start and early laps were crucial, Viñales said. "In MotoGP right now, the first ten laps decide the race. I want to be there. I want to be battling. Of course, if I have the opportunity to help, I will do. But I’m very focused on my job in these last races. We are getting faster every time."
Staying ahead will be a challenge. The polesitter Johann Zarco is fast not just over a single lap, but has displayed an impressive turn of pace all weekend. The Frenchman has consistently been quick, and despite crashes on both Friday and Saturday, is feeling very comfortable with the bike. He has been quick with both tires, but was especially pleased with his pace on the hard rear tire. "I’m pretty happy that I got this good feeling on the hard rear tire. Tomorrow should be a bit warmer the temperature, so even more possibility to use this hard rear, and then if I have an advantage I will try to take it," the Frenchman told the press conference.
The warmer temperatures expected on Sunday should help everyone wanting to use the hard rear, but the safe choice is still the medium. The trade off is a lot of performance early with a drop off over the last quarter of the race or so. The hard rear lasts longer, but it needs an extra lap to get up to temperature, as Aleix Espargaro demonstrated so vividly.
Alex Rins put the dilemma into perspective. "It will be difficult. I need to analyze well, because with both medium and hard I felt good. It seems like the medium will struggle in the last 6, 7 laps, so let's see if we decide for the medium or the hard. The hard is also working well, so it's between both of them."
For the hard rear, it needed some care to get up to temperature at first. "As you can see there were also some crashes. It was difficult a bit for two or three laps for the left, but it seems like tomorrow the temperature will be higher. So it will be easier to get the temperature," the Suzuki rider said.
Rins has decent race pace, but a mix up during qualifying, which saw him use the hard instead of the soft front on his first run, meant he couldn't push as hard as he wanted, and left him down in eleventh.
Being that far back is not necessarily a bad thing, however. Brad Binder, who starts from the fifth row after failing to get out of Q1, was confident of being able to make his way forward as the race progresses. "Honestly, the pace is what carries you through," the Red Bull KTM rider said. "Silverstone is a long track, and if I can do 20 laps here mistake free alone, we can make a huge step forward. I really want to go through and look at everything in detail this afternoon, and I'm going to find that last bit of feeling so I know that tomorrow I can kill it."
Predicting a winner at Silverstone is hard. Johann Zarco starts from pole, and has the pace to hold off any challenges. Maverick Viñales' pace is pretty much there too, in the low to mid 1'59s, and Silverstone is a track where he excels, like Assen. Jorge Martin had very strong pace, as did Alex Rins. Fabio Quartararo has the pace to match Zarco, but faces doing a Long Lap penalty. Before his crash in FP4, Aleix Espargaro would have been the red hot favorite, but there is still a question mark over whether he will race or not.
Whether the factory Ducatis can match the pace of the fast group is open to question. Jack Miller posted a quick time in FP4, but it was a single lap, his rhythm mostly being in the low 2'00s, about half a second off the likes of Zarco and Martin. Pecco Bagnaia is fast over a single lap, but his race pace was nothing to write home about, ending FP4 way down in 21st. He is struggling with rear grip, something that is easy to solve with a soft tire for a single lap, but that solution won't last for 20 laps of the Silverstone circuit.
Do not underestimate just how long 20 laps of Silverstone is. It is fast, with a lot of physically demanding high-speed changes of direction. It requires the patience to go easy on your tires throughout the race in the hope of having as much as possible left at the end. Alternatively, you can try to push for a gap early and then hope to maintain it once your rear tire goes away.
Either way, it will make for a fascinating race. Silverstone is one of the few circuits where MotoGP bikes can truly stretch their legs, and be used to the full. It flows, and like all flowing tracks, rewards skill, courage, and maturity. Silverstone always delivers great racing. There is no reason to think it would be any different now.
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