Apologies for the extreme tardiness of this report, dear readers. Travel delays, the Romano Fenati situation, and a minor mishap at home threw my work schedule into utter disarray, and I got a long way behind. Aragon will be better.
"I have my strategy," Andrea Dovizioso told us after qualifying on Saturday at Misano. "It's always better to have a clear strategy, but to have a strategy and be able to make your strategy is a different story. You have to adapt to the conditions."
Dovizioso had seemed quietly confident as he sat in Ducati's hospitality unit and told us about his day qualifying. The Italian often exudes a sense of calm, but in hindsight, this was calm built on a sense of confidence. Dovizioso believed he could win on Sunday. But first, he would have to dispose of Jorge Lorenzo and Maverick Viñales, both of whom had stamped their authority on practice with great ferocity. Then there was Marc Márquez, of course, who had spent practice concentrating on old tires, working for the latter stages of the race. Throw in a couple of wildcards – Jack Miller had impressed all weekend, while Cal Crutchlow and Valentino Rossi were perennial threats – and winning in Misano was obviously a tough gig.
On Sunday morning, I went with Neil Morrison to watch warm up from the inside of the track. We stood at the head of the T, offering an easy view of the inside of Curvone, Turn 11, as well as the crucial corners of Turn 8, at the end of the back straight, and Turn 16, the final corner which leads onto the front straight. There, we noticed a number of things: the strength of the Honda braking into Turn 8; the incredible speed of the Ducatis through Curvone, their forks almost bottoming after they cut across the kerb; and the outstanding acceleration which the Ducatis had out of the final corner. Mechanical grip is a very real thing, as former Moto3 and Moto2 crew chief Peter Bom once told me.
Begin as you mean to carry on
All of these factors would come into play on Sunday. Andrea Dovizioso wasted no time in demonstrating the drive which the Ducatis had out of Turn 6, passing Marc Márquez onto the back straight as if he was standing still. That made up for losing out in Turns 1 and 2 at the start, a dangerous spot where disaster always lies in wait. Dovizioso had gotten off to a flying start, heading into second spot into Turn 1, and holding on round the outside. But Jack Miller and Marc Márquez held the stronger line as they flicked back for Turn 2, and Dovizioso chose caution over valor to settle for fourth. Maverick Viñales was the big loser from the start, getting mugged left and right, and leaving Turn 2 ensconced firmly in fifth.
Out at the front, it was Jorge Lorenzo, pursuing exactly the strategy we had expected. The Spaniard was off to the races, and looked set to do what many had feared: check out at the start, never to be seen again.
It did not quite play out that way. Andrea Dovizioso took advantage of the incredible speed the factory GP18s had shown through Curvone to slide underneath Jack Miller and into second place at Turn 12. A lap later, and he was on Lorenzo's tail. Jorge Lorenzo would not be running away with this one.
The two factory Ducatis had clear air between themselves and Marc Márquez, while Jack Miller snapped at the Repsol Honda's heels. Miller sat and chased for a couple of laps, but succumbed to a compromise of bike setup he has used all year. A little more preload on the front to help with braking with a full tank made the bike susceptible to bumps, and the front just got away from him at Turn 14. It was the second time it has happened this year, Miller crashing out for the same reason at Barcelona.
Playing it safe, but not being safe
"Small mistake by me," Miller said after the race. "Just with a full fuel tank I was losing a lot in acceleration onto the back straight out of Turn 6, and I was just trying to stay with them. But I just went into Turn 14 right at the apex. We went with a little more preload, dropped the front so it was more or less in the same spot, but it was just squishing the tire a bit too much, especially with a full tank. And I just got to the apex, you saw how slow I was, I lost the front and just couldn't hold her up."
"We normally do the preload thing just for that," the Australian said, "but we did it because yesterday in the qualifying, I was getting some bottoming, and that seemed like the logical step. But we knew we were going quite stiff in the preload rather than the spring. It was just a risk, and it didn't pay off for us today." It was an early end to an otherwise strong weekend. The bike had been working well, and Miller had shown enough of the promise to justify Ducati's faith in signing him to the Pramac squad.
Miller's crash split the field in two. At the front, the two Ducatis led, with Marc Márquez hot on their heels. Behind them, Alex Rins led a small group on the Suzuki, LCR Honda's Cal Crutchlow close behind, with Maverick Viñales, Dani Pedrosa, and Valentino Rossi doing their best to follow. Crutchlow would eventually get past Alex Rins as the Spaniard struggled for grip, but behind him, the group would start to string out. By the end of the race, Viñales, Pedrosa, and Rossi would be 16, 17, and 19 seconds behind the leaders as they crossed the line.
Three for the win
It was plenty close enough at the front, however. Dovizioso sat on Lorenzo's tail, biding his time and tactically harassing the Spaniard just to make sure Lorenzo knew he was there. Lorenzo knew alright, but he wasn't capable of going any faster, regretting having chosen the medium tire both front and rear. Lorenzo held up Dovizioso, and Márquez closed in on the pair of them.
On lap 6, Dovizioso made his move. Getting drive out of Turn 6 once again, Dovizioso just plain out-accelerated Lorenzo down the back straight, making a clean pass well before they started to brake for Quercia. From there, the roles were reversed. No longer was it Lorenzo making a break. Instead, it was Andrea Dovizioso.
Dovizioso was a good deal more successful than his teammate had been. Within three laps, his gap to Lorenzo was nearly a second. A couple of laps later, it was more. Though there was still over half the race to go, his lead looked comfortable, if not exactly unassailable.
The Italian was helped by Marc Márquez' realization that he had the pace to beat Lorenzo, but not the pace to match Dovizioso. Márquez started sniping at Lorenzo, jabbing his bike up the inside on the brakes and showing the Ducati rider a wheel whenever he could. Lorenzo was starting to struggle with braking, and when he ran wide at Turn 14, Márquez pounced, hugging the inside line to take over second place.
Knock down, drag out
That was the start of a fierce battle, the pair swapping places for second time and again. Lorenzo knew he was faster than Márquez, but Márquez was stronger on the brakes. Lorenzo nipped and jabbed, sticking the nose of his GP18 up the inside of the Repsol Honda at Quercia, at Curvone, at Carro. Márquez knew he was coming, giving all he had to stay ahead of the Ducati, both bikes shaking violently as they came through Turn 11.
On lap 17, the fight started in earnest. Lorenzo dived inside Márquez into Quercia, Márquez swooping back past through Tramonto. Lorenzo looked at Curvone, but wasn't fast enough. Lorenzo past at Quercia once again the following lap, only for Márquez to repeat his pass from the previous lap. Lorenzo had another look on the exit of Curvone, and though he was closer this time, it was still not close enough.
He was the next time around, though. Holding his speed, and his nerve, through Turn 11, Lorenzo placed himself perfectly to carry the speed to slice inside Márquez at Turn 12. It was a move requiring courage and skill in equal measure, and in abundance. And once in front, Lorenzo was firmly in the driving seat once again.
The result of the race looked set. Andrea Dovizioso led the race, comfortably in control of his pursuers. When Lorenzo threatened to close to within a second, Dovizioso upped his pace and stretched the gap once again. Meanwhile, Márquez sat behind Lorenzo, poking and probing and ready to pounce, should the opportunity present itself.
In the end, Márquez didn't need to. On the penultimate lap, as Lorenzo hit full lean at the apex of Turn 8, the front finally got away from him, the grip on the edge no longer matching what he was asking of the tire. He was down, and he was out, and any remote chance of the championship was finally gone.
Andrea Dovizioso went on to take a masterful victory. The Italian had controlled the race from the beginning, managing the early laps, and capable of a much faster pace than anyone else on track. The win had come from confidence gained during warm up. "Especially after the warm up I was feeling good," Dovizioso said after the race. "I knew my speed was minimum the same as the competitors, but with the MotoGP we are now sometimes is not enough when you are in that situation. You have to create the situation. I was so focused to do that."
He did that by keeping an eye on his teammate and watching the pace they set behind him, managing the gap which opened up. "I knew Jorge want to start leading and push," Dovizioso explained. "He didn’t push so hard at the beginning, maybe to save the tire or I don’t know why. So I overtake him and I try to save the tire and play with the riders behind me. Try to understand the speed and how comfortable I was to push, when I push and when I slow down. I did 1'32.6 but I didn’t really take the maximum risk. So I understood we have a chance to win today."
Dovizioso's only moment of concern came at the end of the race, when Lorenzo upped his pace and tried to catch him. "When [Jorge ] is strong at the end he come very, very fast. So I have to push again, but I don’t want to make a mistake because I think everybody was on the limit with the tires. The grip on the race is very, very low compared to the practice and you can’t be aggressive. So I take again some risk and I think in the same lap he crashed I did 1'32.8. When I did that, I knew it was enough to stop him."
Andrea Dovizioso had correctly identified Jorge Lorenzo's strategy, but that strategy was thwarted when the medium front tire didn't give him the grip he wanted while braking on the edge. The Spaniard hadn't been able to brake the way he wanted to, which meant he hadn't been able to catch Dovizioso, and struggled to shake off Marc Márquez. It was using the medium front which had caused him to crash out on the penultimate lap, remounting to finish in 17th, and out of the points.
"I don’t think it was the braking, this movement that creates the crash," Lorenzo responded when asked for the causes of the crash. "It was more having to use the medium/medium that normally I don’t like, especially in front. I didn’t have good grip on the side, I didn’t have good grip in the center of the tire in the front or the rear to stop the bike. So this made me to use the front brake all the race to stop the bike and the front was closing and closing."
His preference would have been to use the soft tires, which both worked so well at the test, and which saw him on lap record pace. But conditions were very different on the race weekend, and that had created some confusion. "It was a very strange thing that one month ago here with very hot conditions, the soft tire was really constant, and for the weekend the soft rear tire was impossible to keep going after five laps. It was completely destroyed, especially Friday," Lorenzo said.
He had tried the soft tires in morning warm up but they had not given him any confidence. "In the first lap of the warm up I used soft and soft, and the rear was not good. This also make a bad feeling on braking on the soft." Lorenzo and his team had decided to play it safe and chosen the medium tires front and rear, in part because of the good pace his teammate had shown on the rubber. The ideal combination was probably a soft front and medium rear tire, Lorenzo said. "So the medium rear, medium/soft today with low grip of the tarmac could be a good option, but we will never know."
Lorenzo's crash left him with no points, and a deficit of 91 points in the championship. With six races to go, his title chances are pretty much gone. He needs Marc Márquez to finish outside the top six for the remaining races. Given that outside of Argentina, where he lost his cool and was punished as a result, Márquez' worst finish is third at Brno, the chances of that look almost infinitesimal.
The bigger picture
Misano was another race where Márquez took another step closer to the 2018 MotoGP championship. Despite his devastating speed in morning warm up, the best Márquez could do was a podium in Misano. Even as he stomped the field in the morning, he knew that would not hold in the afternoon. "Of course in the warm up I was fast, but I already know that for the race with more temperature then you have less grip on the corner," he told the press conference. "I cannot carry the same corner speed, and then the difference on the straight is even bigger."
He knew he did not have the measure of the Ducatis. "Honestly speaking, I was on the limit. I was pushing too much in some areas," Márquez said. "Honestly speaking, I was just following Ducatis. I was not able to overtake them. Just when I overtake Jorge is because he did a mistake. He go wide and then I overtake him. Then okay, we fight there three laps, four laps because I was aggressive in that area, but when I follow them I cannot overtake because I lose too much."
Jorge Lorenzo had got a good look close up at exactly where the Repsol Honda was losing out. "From the laps I was behind him, it was very easy to follow him," Lorenzo said of Marquez. "I catch him a lot, especially in the fast corners. He didn’t have good traction in some exits of the corners. He was very strong in the change of direction, in the entry of the slow corners, but he didn’t have the traction. I don’t know why. His real pace I think was 1'33.0, but with my wheel he could improve two tenths and going 1'32.8 at the end. But for sure when he was in front, he couldn’t go in 1'32."
Lorenzo's crash had gifted Márquez second place, once again limiting his damage in the championship. With Valentino Rossi finishing down in seventh, and Dovizioso taking over second place in the championship, Márquez extended his lead from 59 to 67 points. With Aragon up next, one of Márquez' favorite tracks, followed by Buriram in Thailand, where the Hondas dominated during the test, Márquez should be able to wrap things up at Motegi, Honda's home circuit, in front of Honda's top brass.
Best bike on the grid?
The main threat to Márquez' supremacy comes from the Ducatis. The Desmosedici GP18 is now clearly the best bike on the grid, its combination of strong acceleration, superior top speed, and good braking stability more than compensating for its weakness in turning. "It's true that Ducati has an extra advantage for some reason at this moment," was Dani Pedrosa's verdict. "The bike is super fast, especially when the put the bike straight. It's clearly a huge thing over the rest."
Marc Márquez was a little more cautious, though he acknowledged that Ducati had made a big step during the year. "It’s difficult to understand, because always the garden of your neighbor is better than your one," he said. "This is something that since you don’t ride the bike you never know, but what I see on the track in the first part of the season, the first four or five races I had the best bike. Now the best bike looks like is Ducati. It is always a compromise between riders, between the team."
Andrea Dovizioso was similarly wary of declaring outright superiority. "Nobody really can know," he responded when asked if the Ducati was the best bike on the grid. "Maybe yes, maybe no. Is very difficult to know this because it’s always a mix from the riders and the bike. For sure we improved the situation because we are faster in a track where in the past we weren’t. The only two Ducati riders who are me and Jorge, the other Ducati have a good bike and sometimes for them is very difficult. So, I don’t know."
A question of refinement
But the bike had made big steps forward throughout the season, using the tests not just to find a setup for the race, but also to understand the bike better as a complete package, the way it interacts with the spec electronics and the Michelin tires. "We didn’t change something in the last few months," Dovizioso said. "It's just about working together and trying to understand, adapting to the tires, to the rules of the championship. This is nice because when you have a really good base is very difficult to create something and make a step. You can improve if step by step you work in every details, and if you improve a little bit in a few details at the end of the race is a big thing. This is what happened. The tires have a characteristic, the electronics have another characteristic. The riders have to adapt to the situation."
Things had changed since last year, Dovizioso said, but this is where Ducati had worked to improve. "The tires work in a different way. Last year was a bit different than this year," the Italian said. "We are using the tire in a different way. Is constantly a change, a small change. When you put everything together it can make a difference. So it wasn’t something like Jorge said in Mugello. It’s a work of everybody in every area, and when you put everything together we can fight for the victory."
Can Dovizioso mount a title challenge? Not if Márquez continues his podium run. Five more third place finishes and four more points at Valencia would be enough for the Spaniard to wrap up the title. If Márquez wins a race, or Dovizioso fails to win a race, the Ducati rider's task gets exponentially more difficult. The championship isn't quite over, but the direction it is heading in is looking ever more inevitable.
Jorge Lorenzo's crash was fortuitous for Honda in more ways than one. Not only did it elevate Márquez up to second, and give him four more crucial championship points, it also lifted Cal Crutchlow onto the podium. The LCR Honda rider may have been helped up into third place, but he was clearly the best of the rest, keeping Alex Rins behind him by over 7 seconds.
The podium went some way to making up for missing out on racing at Silverstone, Crutchlow said. "Obviously I’m very pleased for my team. Their home race in San Marino. I didn’t get to race my home Grand Prix two weeks ago, so this was the next best thing.
Crutchlow had gambled on the hard front tire, but getting caught behind Rins early on meant he lost touch with the leaders, and despite being close to their pace, had not been able to catch them. "With a full tank and the harder front tire I was not overly confident, because we only used it yesterday in free practice 4 a little bit," Crutchlow said. "So I thought to just manage that situation. Once I cleared Maverick and Rins I had a gap already to the guys. There was ten laps in the middle where I pushed but not massively. I was taking a tenth and then losing a tenth. It just wasn’t enough because I thought that they would start to battle at the end and maybe I could capitalize then. But the last five laps I just did my own thing and just cruised home."
Behind Crutchlow, the field had spread out quickly after the start. Alex Rins rode a decent race on the Ecstar Suzuki GSX-RR, finishing a lonely fourth. At what should have been a strong home race for his teammate Andrea Iannone, Rins clearly outclassed the Italian, though both struggled with the reduced grip during the race.
Moto2 manacles Movistar?
The drop in grip levels after the Moto2 race is what finally ended the hopes of the Movistar Yamaha riders. Both Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi had looked quick during practice, with Viñales qualifying on the front row. Viñales, in particular, had been quick and consistent in FP4. But the heat rose on Sunday afternoon, and the Moto2 bikes smeared their Dunlop rubber all over the track, and the Yamahas were left going backwards.
"After FP4 my feelings were very good," Viñales said after the race. "I was riding quite easily in 1'32 in FP4, but in the race, it was totally the opposite feeling. A very slippery track as usual, and losing a lot on the braking area. For me, the problems start on braking, I lose the rear so easily, it slides so much. It comes from the rear, and then I keep sliding all corner, because I enter so slowly into the corner that I need to grab the gas so early. So I keep sliding all corner."
The change in grip compared to the test was remarkable, Viñales said. "When the bike has grip, it's one of the best bikes to ride, but as soon as we lose the grip, the electronics don't help the bike, and it makes it so difficult to go fast and to be precise, you know? I mean, I never missed the corner in the 100 laps of the test, and even yesterday and Friday. Today, I missed in one lap, maybe two or three corners. So it means that today, there was something wrong on the bike."
Testing the impossible
Though the test had been useful in terms of finding a bike setup, there is still an underlying problem when it comes to finding a permanent solution to the way the Yamaha M1 reacts when grip is low, according to Viñales. "The race is different. When we tested, we tested like it was on Friday and Saturday, the grip level. On the race, the grip level is much less. So it looks like we could not test when there is like the race grip, that it's so low. We always test when the grip is quite OK, and at the end of the day, the track is perfect, because we ride and ride and ride with Michelin rubber. I don't know. Unluckily, we can't test with 100 Moto2 bikes on the track. So we don't actually know exactly what's happening."
Valentino Rossi was deeply disappointed to have been so far behind at the circuit which is just a few kilometers from his home. " It was a big shame to not be competitive in Misano in front of all the crowd," the Italian said. "And sincerely I expect to be a bit stronger because yesterday in FP4 I was not too bad. But for some reason that we don't understand today everything is more difficult, already from this morning in the warm-up we were struggling very much. Me and Maverick, also Zarco."
Despite being slower in the morning, Rossi was confident that he would be quicker during the race. "This morning I had a used tire and also the temperature was 15 degrees less on the ground, so I was confident that in the afternoon, with more or less the same conditions, I can be as fast as yesterday. But unfortunately also this afternoon, even if the conditions are very similar to yesterday afternoon, the feeling with the bike and the tires was worse. More difficult everywhere. It's like I have less grip."
Rossi acknowledged that the problems seemed to be worst once the Moto2 bikes had laid down rubber, but he pointed out that it seemed to be a particular problem for Yamaha. "It's a long time that we speak about the rubber of Moto2," Rossi said. "First of all, we don’t know if it's true. And we don’t know why in some race tracks it gives us more problems than others. But especially, the problem is just for us. Because in reality Honda and Ducati have exactly the same lap time as yesterday. So it's strange that the rubber of Moto2 is bad just for Yamaha! But can be. Sincerely, we don't know if it's true. And if it's true, we don’t know why."
To grip or not to grip
Is the problem really the Moto2 rubber? It is probably more accurate to say that the Yamahas have problems when there is less grip. This is nothing new: in the early years of the decade, I would start each weekend discussing with veteran American journalist Dennis Noyes whether a particular track was a Yamaha track or a Honda track (this was the period when Ducati was nowhere). At some point, we went from debating track layouts to weather conditions. Was the Yamaha or the Honda better in the heat? And how about the cold?
In the end, we narrowed it down to grip. When there was grip, the Yamaha excelled, using all of the corner speed and traction which the M1 offered. When grip was lacking, the Yamaha struggled, unable to carry corner speed, unable to get drive out of corners. This was a problem with the Bridgestone tires, but it seems to have gotten worse since the switch to Michelin tires.
By contrast, the Hondas and the Ducatis have fewer problems with different grip conditions. The Ducati has outstanding mechanical grip front and rear, and so can always generate drive out of corners, and be stable on the brakes. The Honda does not have the grip of the Ducati, but what grip it has is predictable and does not vary much as conditions change. Wet or dry, hot or cold, the Honda RC213V remains pretty much the same.
Marc Márquez is the poster boy for this, in part due to his own outstanding ability to deal with changing grip. But particularly in mixed conditions, on a damp track, Márquez truly excels, often lapping a second or more quicker than any other rider on the grid. It is a formidable combination, and as such, it should surprise no one that the Spaniard is on his way to another championship.
Once upon a time, Márquez' teammate Dani Pedrosa was capable of using the Honda's characteristics to sometimes match Márquez' pace, and even beat him. But the changes made to the RC213V have punished Pedrosa, even as Márquez and Cal Crutchlow have benefited.
Wanted: corner speed
At Misano, Pedrosa finally let slip some details about where his problems lie. A sixth place finish was not bad at all, but Pedrosa was more fixated on the time gap to the leaders. 17.408 seconds is an awful lot of time, and he was 15 seconds behind Márquez, and 10 seconds behind Crutchlow. "We are too far from the top group, which is my aim," he said. "And that's it. Today in the race I can see the front group is lapping maybe 0.7 faster, something like this approximately in a short track, which is too much."
Where Pedrosa was lacking was in corner speed, he said. "If I compare to the Yamahas or the Suzukis or some other Hondas, I still need a better setting to find my good corner speed. And that's pretty much what we are looking for every weekend, but it seems like we are not able to find the right balance that I need to just make more effective, my riding."
The problem was that carrying less corner speed meant losing out even further on corner exit, Pedrosa explained. The Honda is already a handful on corner exit, and starting from a slower speed made it worse. "Corner speed and acceleration, it just goes together," he said. Even at a track like Misano, where he has traditionally been strong had not helped. "For me, it doesn't matter what track we are at, the thing is in the setting with the bike. As I said, it's not that the track will change the thing, it's that we will change the thing, and then we will be better on the track." They now move on to Aragon, another track where Pedrosa is usually strong. But unless they fix their corner speed problems, his issues will persist.
It will not be an issue for Marc Márquez, however. Aragon is a track where the Spaniard is always strong, and always highly motivated. But he faces another Spanish rider who both loves Aragon, and is currently on very strong form. With the speed and acceleration of the Ducati, Jorge Lorenzo will take the fight to Márquez, and try to emerge victorious. The stage is set for a showdown, and Aragon will make a fine backdrop for just that.
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