Qualifying is a tricky business at the best of times. Having qualifying just half an hour after FP4 – that is, if you don't have to pass through Q1 – makes it even more complicated. That final session of practice is the only chance to work on setup without worrying about getting through to Q2 – and in my book, makes it the most interesting session of practice all weekend. But that also means that if you want to compare two different setups, FP4 is the session you do it. After FP4, you have thirty minutes to get two bikes ready for qualifying, with identical setups.
There is little room for error. Should you, say, crash in FP4 on the bike with your preferred setup, as Marc Márquez did at Motegi, then it makes qualifying complicated. Even if you get the bike back to the pits quickly, your team probably won't be able to get the bike back ready to race in time for the start of Q2. And if your second bike uses a very different setup – some combination of a different rear link, a different offset, different rear shock, say – then your team might not have time to change it all back again to the way you want it.
So you have to go into qualifying with a setup you aren't convinced is perfect for the track and for the conditions. That can allow doubt to enter your mind. And doubt saps confidence, and a lack of confidence costs speed. Not having the right feeling, the confidence to push hard can be worth a tenth of a second or more. And in today's MotoGP, a tenth of a second is three, four, five places on the grid.
That is the problem Marc Márquez faced. A fast crash at Turn 7 on used tires – 17 laps on the front, 19 laps on the rear – in FP4 left the bike with his preferred setup with too much damage to repair to be ready for qualifying. "In FP4 I felt really good, I was riding really good with the bike," he said. "I was so constant with the used tires too. But unfortunately I had the crash, and we didn't have time to repair the bike, and we didn't have time to change the setup of the other bike, because it was a completely different setup. And there is where we lose again the confidence in the quali."
Could Márquez have stopped Andrea Dovizioso taking pole if he hadn't crashed? Possibly. Márquez' pace in FP4 was pretty formidable. Of the 9 laps which Márquez completed in the session, 5 were faster than anyone else. Then again, Andrea Dovizioso's pace in FP3 was much quicker than Márquez' while both were on used tires.
Comparisons are hard, though, as Dovizioso told the press conference. "It’s difficult to know in the details because unfortunately we did the weekend in the opposite way," the Italian said. "When he used the soft I used the medium and the opposite. So we never really made the pace at the same time in the same conditions. The details we don’t know. But overall we are very, very similar."
Márquez' difficulties made for a fascinating qualifying. Cal Crutchlow was the first rider to crack into the 1'44s, and he looked set for pole for much of Q2. But in the final three minutes, the riders upped the pace, and a mistake on his fast lap meant he couldn't improve his time.
Márquez was the first rider to best Crutchlow's time, but he had Johann Zarco close behind, while Jack Miller was sitting on Zarco's tail. Zarco had Márquez just far enough in front of him that he could use the Repsol Honda as a target. Miller was sat right on Zarco's tail, benefiting from a perfect tow. The Pramac Ducati shot across the line to take provisional pole.
That made him a little greedy, however. "I was surprised to be on the front row," Miller said afterwards. "But seeing my first sector on my second lap – I did my fastest on the first lap and we know that is not really the optimum for the tires – it was going to be a good one. But I pushed too hard into turn five and locked the front. I was going in way too fast. I tried to continue anyway to see what would happen. What happened was I landed on my bum!"
Miller may have crashed, but Dovizioso and Zarco were still out on track. The factory Ducati rider took over a tenth of a second off Miller's time to take pole, while Zarco improved his time to take second from Miller, leaving the Australian in third spot. Crutchlow's costly mistake put him fourth on the grid, ahead of Andrea Iannone and Marc Márquez.
Crutchlow was contrite. "I just made a mistake on my lap, and it's my own fault, it's nobody else's," he said. "I have myself to blame, and that's it. I was pushing, because I wanted the pole, whereas if I probably hadn't pushed so much, I would have had the front row, so it's a bit of give and take." Starting on the second row is a bit of a problem at Motegi. "I think the guys on the front row are fast, but I don't think Jack has the pace at the moment to be there for the whole race, or be able to have that pace," Crutchlow said. "So the disappointing thing is we have to start behind him, and that means we have to pass him quite early on in the race."
The second row is something of a concern for Marc Márquez as well, especially with Andrea Dovizioso, the only obstacle between him and his fifth MotoGP title, is starting from pole. "It would have been better the other way round," Márquez told Spanish media. "But we have a chance, because I felt really good, especially about race pace in FP4. But we aren't starting in the best position, starting sixth, and it's hard to overtake here, especially in the first laps with a full tank."
Andrea Dovizioso doesn't believe for a second that starting from the second row will slow Márquez up. "I don't think starting from sixth will be a limit for him," Dovizioso told the Italian media. "You will see him in the first three at the end of the first lap. I think he had a problem in qualifying, but his pace is really fast." The fact that the title was in play would not slow Márquez down, Dovizioso said. "He's a rider who has won a lot, and been in much worse situations in his career. He has a big margin in the classification, so he can afford to take a risk and try something.
But it won't be a straight fight between Marc Márquez and Andrea Dovizioso, at least not according to Márquez. "Dovi will be there, he has a good pace," the Repsol Honda rider said. "Cal too, even though he has to push more in some points. And after, he improved something, and in FP4 he had a good rhythm. And Zarco will also be there, fighting for the victory."
Is the fact that Zarco is fast at Motegi a sign that Yamaha have turned the corner? The improvement may lie more with Zarco's love for Motegi than the Yamaha M1, according to Valentino Rossi. "First of all, Zarco here in Motegi is always very strong, it's one of his favorite tracks," the Italian said, after qualifying on the third row with Maverick Viñales, two rows behind the Frenchman on the satellite Monster Tech3 Yamaha.
Zarco was delighted with the result. "I’m happy," he said. "I feel very happy to be fast again! From FP1 I got a good pace and could work well with the team. I tried to go better but this is pretty difficult." He felt strong enough to have a shot at the win on Sunday. "To start from the first row is the main thing and I’m pretty happy. It’s a good opportunity tomorrow. Dovi and Marc are fighting for the title so it’s maybe an opportunity to lead the race and why not fight for the victory."
The factory Yamahas, meanwhile, start from two rows behind. The optimism from Friday is fading, as both Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi are running into problems. "Today was not fantastic, but it was also not so bad - it was a little bit average," Rossi said. My pace improved compared to yesterday. "It's nothing great, but we're with five or six riders with a similar pace, so the race will be very much open. We'll see tomorrow. We have to try to improve in some areas, because I'm not very happy about the setting. We have to try to do better."
"Unfortunately, we are not as fast as in Thailand," Rossi told Italian media. "We are back at our normal level, my pace is nothing special, and there are a lot of riders with this pace." Fighting for the win is a step too far, the Italian said. "Ducati and Honda are still better than us in acceleration. But in braking I'm good, and I want to try some changes, because I suffer too much in some corners."
Rossi's words point to the underlying problem within Yamaha, especially when set alongside what Maverick Viñales had to say. "I'm happy actually about the traction, because I didn't expect to have that traction here," the Spaniard said. "So it means that's really positive, we were struggling a lot in that area in other tracks, but we have to improve the braking point. So we have to keep focusing a lot there and trying tomorrow to make another step."
The great schism
The issue seems to be that Rossi and Viñales are pulling Yamaha in two separate directions. The change in weight distribution has helped Viñales find rear grip, but that has come at the cost of braking. Rossi still feels he is lacking rear grip, but is much stronger in braking. This suggests that the bike still has a fundamental flaw, with the perfect balance between acceleration and braking still out of reach.
The way the track had changed was also not helping with grip, Maverick Viñales told Spanish media. "I felt much stronger in FP1, with less rubber on the track," he said. More rubber on the track was making braking a little bit worse each practice, the Movistar Yamaha rider said. "Practice after practice it's getting worse. We are working on braking, but I am very limited by what the bike will let me do. I'm riding the best that I can, but I have this limit. If I try to go faster, I go wide and go slower."
The root of the braking problem, Viñales believes, is the engine, something which he believes he can see from watching Johann Zarco on the old bike. "For me, it's the engine. It's a different engine with much less engine brake, and he can stop the bike. Our problem is that I can't stop the bike. I could see it very clearly in the wet yesterday."
Who is #1?
Viñales is starting to show signs of frustration with the situation. "It was different at Suzuki, because they basically worked for me," he told Spanish media. "The did exactly what I wanted, because they built a bike for me. Here, it's a bit difficult to do, because they have two riders who can win the championship, and who have two opinions."
But the Spaniard was careful not to blow the situation up too much. "I don't know which direction they are following," he said. "Anyway, I have a good communication with them, and I always try to give positive comments for the base of the bike for next year. I always try to communicate a lot, because I want to have them on my side, so they will make a bike which suits my style."
Whether such a bike would also suit Valentino Rossi's style is a good question. Even more important is whether Valentino Rossi would be willing to let Yamaha try, if he believes that would make it more difficult for him to win a championship. But with Yamaha on the verge of racking up their 25th race in a row without a victory, they are coming to a point where they may just have to take that gamble. Valentino Rossi is a giant of MotoGP, and a man clearly still capable of fighting for a championship, as he demonstrated in 2015. But since MotoGP switched to Michelins, the Yamaha has struggled to be as competitive as before. Perhaps a radical new approach is required. Listening to Viñales might be better for Yamaha in the medium and long term. They might even get to win again.
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