It has been a strange weekend so far in Barcelona, with changing conditions once again the culprit. First, there was the heavy rain on Wednesday and Thursday, which left the track coated in fine sand and dust blown in from the Sahara. Then there is the rapidly changing weather: temperatures have been rising rapidly every day, with track temperatures 10°C higher on Saturday than they had been on Friday, with a similar increase expected again on Sunday. Track temperatures for the race are expected to be well over 50°C, spelling disaster for grip levels.
Completing the trifecta of problems, the Moto2 race is likely to leave a thick layer of Dunlop rubber on the surface, which will make grip levels even more unpredictable. "After Moto2, it will be worse," Michelin's Two Wheel Motorsports manager Piero Taramasso predicted on Saturday evening. "Many times this problem happens when you have aggressive asphalt, which is the case here, and on a track in very hot conditions, which is also the case. So I think that tomorrow after the Moto2 race, the conditions will be not as good as we would like."
Another day of track action and the running of the Moto2 race may help sweep some of the dust and sand from the track, but the rubber the Moto2 bikes leave behind in the forecast hot and humid conditions will leave the surface greasy and without grip. "The track will be cleaner, but without Michelin rubber on the track," Taramasso said. One step forward, two steps back.
Changing and unexpected conditions have made tire selection exceptionally difficult. Michelin put the tire allocation together to suit a normal Barcelona weekend, covering a range of temperatures and weather conditions. They didn't expect the track to be covered in sand, a freak occurrence that happens very occasionally. So while all six tires – three different compounds on the front, three on the rear – can do race distance, depending on bike and riding style, evaluating the ideal combination has been nearly impossible.
That has made it impossible for the riders to size up the competition, and for the media and other timesheet analysts to figure out what a realistic race pace will be, and what combination of tires they can expect to see their rivals try to race.
"There was a big confusion during the weekend," Andrea Dovizioso commented on Saturday afternoon. "The grip is very low. We are one second slower than last year – everybody is. With this characteristic everybody is struggling a lot to manage the tires. It’s a bit difficult to make the right decision because it was very unusual to see the Free Practice 4 with a lot of new tires and a lot of comparisons. I think until the race nobody will really take the decision."
Starting from the second row, Dovizioso was confident, but with little idea of how the race might actually play out. "I am quite happy with the bike," the factory Ducati rider said. "The speed is there. We are a big group with a similar pace but it’s very difficult to understand the real pace of the race of the competitors because everybody is struggling and not many riders did many laps, a race distance. It’s a bit difficult to understand. The races here are always normally very hard because the grip is very low, especially in the race. If it’s a bit lower than the practice it will be very difficult for everybody. I can’t really know how the race will be."
The grip levels have produced some fairly bizarre results along the way. On a low grip surface, it is usually the Hondas and Ducatis which shine, while the Yamahas and Suzukis struggle. Yet all four Yamahas are on the two front rows of the grid, Marc Márquez the only Honda among them. And Alex Rins would have been in the middle of the second row, had he not crashed on his final run. The Suzuki Ecstar rider had the strongest race pace in FP4, showing the strength of the Suzuki around Barcelona.
"I'm a little bit disappointed, because we had a small crash in qualifying, so maybe I was able to start on the first or second row," Rins said." But anyway, the rhythm was not so bad. I think compared to the other guys, with Fabio, maybe Márquez, we are more or less there. We will see what happens."
Rins had felt that he grip was not great, but been able to ride anyway, he said. "The grip level was not so bad for us. For sure a big difference compared to yesterday. The grip for us was very good this morning, this afternoon it was OK. As I said, it's a little bit different, the grip level. It looks like the track has grip, but in the moment that you are at the maximum angle and you try to open to get good traction and you start to slide a little bit, then you pick up the bike a little bit and you go. So you need to find something." The Suzuki had a great base package, which meant it could be fast in hot conditions and in cold, with high grip and with low grip.
Grip or not?
Marc Márquez was equally nonplussed by the way the bikes reacted to the low grip levels. "I don’t know," he said. "In Jerez that was a very high grip. We were very, very fast. Here we are struggling more with the grip. We just didn’t find the lap time in a good way, but in our side we know where the problem is. It’s just a matter of time. I’m struggling, but I’m there. So it’s not like I’m struggling and I’m a half second behind them. I’m struggling but in the race pace is the same. Qualifying practice is the same."
The grip was causing problems for everyone, causing Franco Morbidelli to have an off-throttle highside, and Jack Miller to crash in Q1. "I think definitely the track has changed compared to last year," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "There's a lot less grip. The track is super slippery. Scary in some points to be honest. Because, like you saw with Marc and Frankie this morning, we're having highsides on entry to the corner, which is not normal. And all it is, is rear brake. You touch a bit of rear brake with angle and all of a sudden you are losing the rear."
That was why he had crashed during Q1, Miller explained. "When I went out there we did the first three laps, the corner where Frankie highsided, I had my first moment, turn one I had two moments braking in. Because my style is that I brake-brake-brake and then when I start tipping in to the apex that's when I more or less start to use more of the rear brake to settle the bike. I'm not able to ride it like that here because there is absolutely zero edge grip on the rear coming into the corners. So I start having these highside moments. It's not useful, let's say."
The biggest mystery viewed from the outside is Marc Márquez. The Repsol Honda rider was on course to take pole position on his final flying lap, but a massive slide at Turn 4 saw him nearly off the bike. What was truly impressive, however, was the fact that he set his fastest time through the third sector – the section of the track immediately following the corner where he had to save the bike on his elbow and knee – before finally bailing on the lap in the final sector. Had he not given up on the lap time, he still would have lapped the track in under 1'40.
It is hard to tell exactly what Márquez' times mean for his race pace. The Repsol Honda rider has looked like he has struggled all weekend, spending an unusual amount of time following other riders. When asked repeatedly about this in the press conference, he became visibly peeved, pointing out that he did his fast times in FP4 when he was riding on his own. "I was just getting pushing, just getting my rhythm. We just tried to understand how to work with the front tire, but then suddenly in FP4 when I put the hard front, all the problems disappear and then I’m riding like I want. I did good lap times with race distance tires."
Valentino Rossi felt that Márquez following other riders was his way of sizing them up. "Marquez is not only fast but is always very, very clever during the practice because he always studies his rivals and he knows exactly where… is all under calculation, he knows exactly who to follow," Rossi said.
Márquez acknowledged he had learned a thing or two while following the Monster Energy Yamaha rider. "The Yamahas carry the speed in a very good way," he said. "Here in this circuit you need to carry the speed. They carry the speed. They have good traction. Looks like for the conditions of this weekend everybody expect Ducati versus Honda, Honda versus Ducati, and is opposite. Looks like the bikes are working better is Yamaha and Suzuki that have less torque and less power. Is interesting also to understand because we have one very long straight, but then thirteen corners that they are riding in a very good way."
Down at last
It was Fabio Quartararo who carried the speed best of all through the thirteen corners, the French rookie taking his second pole position from just his seventh race in MotoGP. This pole also came after he discounted being at 100% in Barcelona, as he had arm pump surgery just over a week ago. But here he is, beating the rest and taking pole.
It was not as easy as usual for the Petronas Yamaha SRT rider, however. He had his first ever crash in MotoGP during FP3. It is remarkable that it took so long, to be frank, as he has gone for four MotoGP tests, six full MotoGP weekends, and two and a half practice sessions before going down for the first time. Was it a result of pain from the surgery? Unlikely, if we are to believe Quartararo. "FP1 was a quite strange feeling on the arm. I still have the stitches, so I feel not pain but strange feeling on my arm. I think I never really raced with an injury, but this is not also an injury. This is something that we need to do for the next races. It’s just a matter of getting used to it."
If Quartararo wins on Sunday, he will become the youngest ever winner of a MotoGP race, taking that crown from Marc Márquez. It is his last chance for that record, though he seems to have little interest in it. The Frenchman seems far more focused on Assen, a race he believes he can win, rather than Sunday's race in Barcelona.
But Quartararo certainly has the pace, as does Marc Márquez and Alex Rins. The Suzuki and the Yamaha have less of a disadvantage at Barcelona, less than they had at Mugello, at least. It is a shorter straight which is not quite as fast as Mugello, and easier for the Suzuki at least, according to Alex Rins.
Rins to make it two?
It feels like Rins could get away and win from the front, if he first he can get past the other riders. The Suzukis need a lead of at least a couple of tenths coming onto the front straight, Joan Mir said, if they are to stay ahead of the Ducatis and the Hondas. Rins can get a good start, but can he get ahead of the Honda of Márquez?
The Yamahas will obviously be a factor, withFabio Quartararo starting from pole and obviously having strong pace, and Valentino Rossi on the second row, and always finding a couple of tenths on Sunday. Maverick Viñales had an excellent qualifying session, but lost his front row start when he celebrated too early, not realizing he had crossed the line before the checkered flag came out. Viñales will now start from sixth, promoting Franco Morbidelli to the front row.
That moves Andrea Dovizioso up to fifth on the grid, and a very good starting point. Sunday's race will in all likelihood come down to tire management, and finding a way to go as slow as possible while still stay ahead of your rivals. Dovizioso is a master of that particular dark art, and will be looking to deploy his skill in the race on Sunday.
Above all, the race feels both completely open, and full of potential surprises. Who could win? Any one of three or four riders. Who could podium? Take your pick of the top ten or so. Where will Joan Mir finish? His race pace suggests he could be on for a top six in Barcelona. What about Jorge Lorenzo? The Repsol Honda rider was straight through to Q2 on Saturday, and will start the race from tenth. He still has a lot of work to do, but there are real signs of progress, at last. And watch out for Pol Espargaro and the KTM, a rider who always has something extra at home.
This could be quite a race.
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