The MotoGP paddock had been looking fearfully at weather forecasts the entire week, and well into the night. Some of them drove through flooded roads to arrive at the Buriram circuit in Thailand, a week after losing Saturday to the rain at Motegi. MotoGP feared another washout.
Instead, they appear to have dodged a bullet. There were a couple of rain showers, and some half-wet, half-dry conditions for Moto3 and Moto2, but MotoGP had two sessions of pretty much completely dry practice. And looking at the weather forecast for tomorrow, there is every chance of it being dry again on Saturday. But also, every chance of rain.
At least the teams got a decent day of practice, and could work on setup and getting the bikes dialed in for Sunday's race. It was helped by the fact that despite not having raced here since 2019, the track was in surprisingly good shape. "The track was in pretty decent condition considering we haven't been here in three years, so pretty happy with that," Jack Miller said. "That was probably the biggest question mark, and with the amount of rain we've had in the last couple of days, or I don't know how much they've had the last week, but if you look around there's plenty of standing water, so it looks like they've had a bit."
Dry practice meant we got a chance to see who had decent pace and who didn't. The Ducatis have clearly made a step since 2019, with Johann Zarco, Jorge Martin, and Pecco Bagnaia looking strong, as were Fabio Quartararo and Marc Marquez. Much more about Marquez later, but worth pointing out that the tires are holding up well at Buriram.
Times were fast on both the soft and medium rears, the pace very consistent with little drop. Both tires look raceable, if it stays dry on Sunday. "Today we were concentrating on the soft tire, because it was looking well in the morning, after three laps of time attack, it was not dropping so much," Pecco Bagnaia said.
The fact that weather conditions were good, but there was a chance of rain on Saturday morning, imbued the entire grid with a sense of urgency. That created its own set of problems at the end of FP2, with yellow flag after yellow flag appearing, causing a spate of riders to lose laps. However, the importance of the yellow flag rule – to remove the incentive for riders to pretend they haven't seen them and push anyway – was clearly on display when Cal Crutchlow went down in the final minutes, and marshals had to clear his bike from runoff at the exit of Turn 7, bikes firing past just a couple of meters away.
It was frustrating for those such as Brad Binder who missed out, though. "This morning my pace was pretty good and this afternoon in the first two it was also and I felt pretty confident," the South African explained. "Unfortunately in the last run my brake pads opened twice because of a lot of shaking so I lost two laps because of that and the third one I had yellow flags. So, I didn’t do a single lap with new tires! It’s really frustrating but at the end of the day I have been fast and I can go fast but I didn’t get the opportunity for a lap."
Even without the yellow flags, improving was hard. Only roughly half the field managed to post a better time, leaving four of the ten places in provisional Q2 to riders with times set in FP1. That was down to conditions, with raised humidity and the wind picking up in the afternoon affecting grip, and a cross wind through the third sector making it tougher to hang on.
"Conditions today were a bit strange, maybe for the humidity, maybe for the hot temperature, I don't know," Pecco Bagnaia told journalists. Ducati Lenovo teammate Jack Miller agreed. "It was a bit harder to do the lap times this afternoon. Seemed like the wind definitely picked up, sort of a cross wind through that sector. The third going on fourth sector was a bit tricky."
Suzuki rider Alex Rins fingered the rain at lunchtime as a possible culprit. "Maybe for the heavy rain that Moto3 had just before FP2," the Spaniard said. "Maybe, I don't know, it made something strange on the track. The grip was lower. I talked with some riders and they had the same problem."
Two dry sessions came as a godsend to Pecco Bagnaia. After struggling badly at Motegi in the dry, and never really finding a working setup, he ended up crashing out of the race. A repeat of that in Buriram would be a major setback for his title campaign.
Things hadn't gotten off to a good start for the factory Ducati rider. "This morning I was a bit worried, because I started and my feeling was very close to the feeling in Japan. So we had to reconsider a few things," Bagnaia said.
Bagnaia and his team managed to quickly turn things around, however. "We worked very well with the team, we did the correct things and finally in FP2, from the start of FP2, my feeling with the bike was really great. The pace with used tires was quite competitive, the time attack went well. I'm very happy about today." With the caveat that it is still only Friday, things are looking good for the Italian.
The man he is chasing had a slightly less successful day. The morning had gone well, but he came up short chasing a fast time on Friday afternoon. "I did not feel that great on the bike. I feel that I am on the limit," he said. "But you know the conditions will be changing quite a lot and, like always, you can see the top five are the same bikes but I think we would also have been there if it was not for the mistake and the yellow flag." Fortunately, he was already through on the basis of the time he set in FP1.
Quartararo had another problem to deal with in the afternoon: the issue of being followed by Ducatis. Luca Marini chased him round for a couple of laps, much to the irritation of the Frenchman. Not that there was a lot he could do about it. "They are eight!" Quartararo said. "So they can play pretty much. Unfortunately I don’t have any help, and today I had Franco in front, but he was gone." Morbidelli is continuing to make progress with the Yamaha, finding the added aggression needed to go faster.
Luca Marini pleaded innocence when asked about following Quartararo. "Nothing in particular," the Mooney VR46 Ducati rider said. "Just try to understand his lines, how he rides here. Because in 2019, in my opinion he was the best. His riding style was really perfect during the race, and he just missed a little bit of tire management compared to Márquez in my opinion, because in the last five laps, Márquez had something more."
Following the rider who came second in 2019 made sense not just because it was Marini's first time on a MotoGP bike in Buriram, but also because the Frenchman was conveniently located in pit lane. "I was following him also because he's close to me in the garage, and it's easier to start with him."
Marini also pointed out that it was better to do it on Friday than on Saturday, when it might have more severe consequences. "In my opinion it's better for him that I follow him with used tires in FP2 than in qualifying and make him nervous."
The Italian then pointed to Marc Marquez as a rider who has recently made a habit of following other riders. "Márquez did this every time, and nobody bothered Márquez for this. So for me, things go on, and everybody... also I was following him, and he followed me too. That's it. It's just something that happens in every race in every practice with every bike. It's just the cameras were there."
Third in championship Aleix Espargaro had the worst day among the title contenders. Aprilia are starting with less data than both Ducati and Yamaha, given just how radically the RS-GP has changed since 2019, and that gave them a lot more work to do. It was so different that Espargaro couldn't even recall how that old bike felt. "I don’t remember! It was a completely different bike. You cannot imagine. In Japan I used a different gear in four corners and here is it three. I did corner #3 in first gear and this year in second, I did #4 in four, this year in third. I don’t know what we were doing for the first three seasons in Aprilia."
Just as in Austria, however, the Michelin heat-resistant casing seemed to be causing problems for the Aprilias. Things were particularly bad for Espargaro, however. "We don’t have any grip and we spin too much and that has not happened for a long, long time. I think it as Brno when I last had this feeling. A lot of spin with both riders in Aprilia. My feeling is that I am not riding that bad bit on a couple of accelerations I have no grip at all."
Maverick Viñales was having very similar problems. "Very low traction on the rear. I brake very good. I feel good with the front tire. But in the rear I don’t know why." Viñales hadn't had the same problems at the Red Bull Ring. "In Austria I had much more grip than here. Here I don’t know why. Zero. I touch the gas and spin a lot, even with new tires."
The only solution, Viñales said, was work. "Sometimes the situation is like that. you need to keep focused. Head down. And you need to push."
Fresh off his victory in Japan, Jack Miller had been fast in the morning, though circumstances had worked against him in the afternoon. The confidence he was carrying came from after the race in Aragon, though. The long plane flight from Spain to Japan had given him a chance to look closely at his riding style and see what he needed to change to go faster.
"I said it in Japan, the boys after the race in Aragon, all sat on the plane and gave me a big list of basically, analyzing, breaking down everything. And really got to sit down, study that, and understand where I need to improve with my riding," Miller said.
He had been able to make that improvement in Japan, and it had paid off for him. "In Japan I was able to do so, and also able to make a relative step, to get that feeling on the bike, to allow me to carry more speed into the corner, basically. To brake later and maybe focus a little less on the exit, and focus more on hitting my braking markers and getting the thing stopped. And then let that exit sort of come to you."
His way of thinking about where speed came from was the wrong way around, Miller explained. "Before, the whole idea of this MotoGP thing is you've got 300 horsepower and you're always focused on trying to make a good exit, to make the time up on the straight, essentially. Whereas those other boys just seem to be winging the exit and really focusing on making up the little difference on the brakes, and mid-corner. And that's where I was losing. Basically because of braking a little earlier, OK, I need to focus on getting a decent exit. And those other fellas aren't, at all. Not too stressed at all about the exit." That change had led him to victory at Motegi.
While we had all been keeping a keen eye on how the title candidates were getting on, our attention kept getting drawn to Marc Marquez. The Repsol Honda rider had a crash in FP1, then got back on the bike and ended the session fastest. His pace was strong too, sufficient for other riders to start to take notice.
If you wanted a graphic example of just where Marc Marquez is in his recovery, then I suggest you watch this clip from the end of FP2. Jack Miller messes up his last lap, and is forced to go wide, before cutting back to the exit of the last corner. Marquez sees Miller, uses his body to stand the bike up, balancing on the very edge of the kerb to avoid having lap canceled, and then turns the uncontrolled exit wheelie into a stand up wheelie across the line.
It is balletic in Marquez' body control, and MotoGP poetry to look at. (Yes, I know you don't "look at" poetry, strictly speaking, but you catch my drift). But what should worry Marquez' rivals much more is that it speaks of the joy which Marquez exudes when he rides a MotoGP machine. That joy is only possible because he understands he can ride freely again, without pain.
He was, naturally enough, very happy. "Especially because in Motegi, I felt better than Aragon. But today I felt better than Motegi. So this is what makes me more happy," the Repsol Honda rider explained. "This means that with more time, I will be better and better. And this is the target."
It was the first time in three years that he had been able to have a normal Friday, pushing from the very start and throughout both sessions, Marquez explained. "Today I was aggressive from FP1 to the last lap of FP2. I was pushing, I was working on my rhythm, I was working on the setup. But working in that way, I start to play with the bike, I start to understand better the setup, I start to understand better what I need on the bike. And step by step it's coming better and better."
And contrary to Luca Marini's accusations, he no longer needed to follow other riders to set a decent time, Marquez explained. "Today in the afternoon I went out, first run and second run alone, pushing, rhythm, consistent." His speed was coming from his riding, not from the Honda RC213V. "It's the same bike, but it's Marc that improves. Because the bike is the same like I raced in Qatar, in the first races. And we are trying a few things, for example this morning I was with the carbon swingarm, this afternoon with the aluminum. Very similar feeling. But just trying things for Honda."
While Marquez felt his arm was tired, it helped that Buriram is not as demanding a track as Motegi had been. "I feel better than Motegi," he said. "It's physical, this track, but it's physical about the weather. Not about the force you need to do on the bike. So this helps me."
That had allowed him to take risks again, find the limit, and get away with it. "Today I said exactly to the team. I said, 'today I used many lives!' And it was like 2019, I was pushing all the laps in practice." That had simply not been possible before his fourth operation. "The problem is the last two years, I can't push all the laps. Because if I do, I don't arrive on Sunday in good shape. Now, OK, I will not arrive on Sunday with the best performance, because a lack of muscle, but not because it's painful."
He was building his Friday the way he used to in the past. "I attacked from the first run – where I crashed already," he laughed. "OK it was a stupid mistake, but then I went out and I attacked. And my way to find the limit is in FP1 make many mistakes, and then put everything in the correct position. And then in FP2 I was already more consistent. But it's the same riding style like in the past. Still not like in the past, but coming better and better."
Marquez is still not back to full fitness, and hoped that the weather would lend him a helping hand on Saturday. "I hope tomorrow it will rain. Not for the result. But to save my energy. Because today I already feel tired. Because today I pushed, I pushed a lot."
Marquez' efforts had not gone unnoticed by his rivals. "I think that Marc in this moment is the one with good pace, similar to us," Pecco Bagnaia noted. "It's difficult to know now, sincerely. Because like I said, everyone has tested different things with tires. Zarco was also very competitive in terms of pace, in terms of time attack too. So let's see. In this moment, Marc is the one who has more here, but it has already three years since we came here, and considering the step we did from FP1 to FP2, that is so big, I think that we can be competitive. But Marc for sure is always so competitive. He's always the one to put in the middle of the battle."
It is looking increasingly likely that Marc Marquez will have a key role to play in the 2022 MotoGP title chase. Not by being directly involved - trailing Quartararo by 146 points means it is already mathematically impossible for him to win the title – but by being a constant presence at the front of the race. Marquez now looks capable of being on or close to the podium at every race. And that means he is going to start stealing points from the main contenders everywhere they go. Championship calculations are about to get a lot more complicated.
21 in '23
Finally, after a very long delay, the 2023 MotoGP calendar was announced. The delay came after the possibility to add two new races, in Kazakhstan and India, opened up over the summer. India, in particular is a surprise, due to previous issues with customs and import taxes. That, however, appears to have been cleared up, paddock sources report.
The arrival of Sokol and Buddh means that Aragon had to make way. Not permanently, but as the start of the rotation which the Spanish circuits and Portimão are planned to make. From 2024, we should see three of the five circuits feature every year, the tracks taking it in turn to host a race.
That has created a rather strange calendar, however. Kicking off in Portugal, the first nine races take place at a leisurely pace, spread over 16 weeks, with a three-week break between Le Mans and Mugello. There follows a three-week break to Silverstone, then two weeks later it's Austria, and another two week break.
Then things get very hectic indeed. Ten races in 13 weeks, with the last six sandwiched into 7 weeks in October and November, culminating in the season finale at Valencia. That race is scheduled to take place on November 26th, followed by a one-day test. Though Valencia can still be bright and sunny in November, the light fades quickly, and with it, the temperature. Not ideal, though still feasible.
A real world championship
Though the general feeling among team members is that it is going to be a hard and grueling slog, most of the riders were rather well-disposed to the calendar. Above all, they were most enthusiastic about the addition of India to the calendar.
"I think it’s very important to go to new countries and improve the community of MotoGP," Maverick Viñales said. "We must improve and grow. We must become the most important sport in the world. For me it’s great. Of course I love racing. It’s something, India is important for us, because I can see many fans for us in India, like Indonesia. For us it’s important. Will improve MotoGP a lot."
Jack Miller was similarly enthusiastic, and pointed to the importance of expanding the sport outside of its traditional base. "We've got a big calendar on, but I like the look of it. One less race in Spain, two new countries. It's fantastic for the championship to be spreading out a little more rather being solely Europe-based," the Australian said. "So for me, I like the idea of that. I like taking MotoGP all around the world. I think that's the goal and that's how it should be."
Miguel Oliveira pointed to the additional stress of the new race format, with a sprint race on Saturday. "Very exciting to go to new places and it’s a step forward. We are getting more time out of Europe, especially at the end of the year, which will be a challenge. The new format gives us a little but more stress and it will be funny to how many back-to-back races and the chance to score points twice in a weekend will affect everyone. It will be more and more important to have a group confidence and good worth ethic inside the teams. Also the riders to look it as a big, big marathon and not stress too much. It will need some time to adapt to it."
A long year
There were also reservations about any thought of expanding the calendar further. "Well, my wife will change the locks on the door with this calendar and the new Kazakhstan and Indian races," Alex Rins joked. "But apart from the jokes, it's nice to discover new places, new tracks. For sure if it will be harder because we will be more time out of home, but it looks good." But a season of 21 races was the limit, the Suzuki rider said.
The only real dissent came from family man Aleix Espargaro. "Very tough," is how the Aprilia rider characterized the new schedule. "It will be very demanding, especially in the last part of the year. It will be tough to do three consecutive races twice so far from home will be very demanding physically and mentally and with the sprint races and the new tracks. A very demanding calendar, sincerely."
It would require a total rethink of how to approach the year, in terms of time with his family and children, Espargaro said. "I will try to organize as much as possible with my team and with my family, maybe I will travel more with my kids. Let’s see how I will organize it."
Above all, however, Espargaro was worried about that last part of the season, with six races in seven weeks. "I have the feeling that the last part will be very demanding for the riders and everybody in the paddock."
Beats working for a living
We still have to see how much of the calendar survives by the time we kick off the year at Portimão on March 26th, 2023 – India and Kazakhstan are still subject to FIM homologation – but whatever happens, it is going to be a very tough year. But as MotoGP photographer Cormac Ryan Meenan likes to point out to me whenever I complain about the schedule, it beats having a job you hate, and having to pull a whole eight hours five days a week, 50-odd weeks a year. That is true. But sometimes, when the alarm goes off after another 5-hour night of sleep, and I drag my aging bones out of bed, it doesn't necessarily feel that way.
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