When a dry line formed during Q1, we knew that there would be riders who would gamble on slicks in Q2. We could even fill in the names: Jack Miller would obviously take a shot on slicks. Marc Márquez might have a go, but then again, why would he risk it? He leads the championship by 58 points, and a starting position on the first two rows would be more than sufficient. But Marc Márquez is Marc Márquez, so of course he is going to take a shot on slicks.
Who else? Anyone who fancied taking a gamble. Maverick Viñales rolled the dice on slicks after setting a time on wets. After a little contretemps with Márquez – more on that later – Alex Rins decided to try slicks. Seeing so many other riders out on slicks already, Danilo Petrucci and his team decided to take a chance on slick tires as well. Fabio Quartararo, Franco Morbidelli, Cal Crutchlow, all stuck slicks on for their last run. If you could get the slicks to work, they would give you a clear advantage.
Getting them to work is not easy, however. "We know the slicks can work in damp conditions," Michelin's Piero Taramasso said on Saturday evening. "If there is standing water, they won't work, but if it is damp, and the rubber is up to temperature, you can use the slicks. But it's not easy."
Tricks of the trade
There are a couple of tricks to ensuring the slicks to work on a track as damp as Brno still was in places. "The exercise is to stress the tire enough immediately to keep the temperature high," Taramasso explained. "What is very difficult is that riders sometimes forget that when they leave the box, they have to ride through pit lane, and pit lane is fully wet. And you are limited to 60 km/h, you cannot speed up and put heat into the tire. Just in that part, you can easily lose 20°C, because the tire cools down on the wet surface. So as soon as you get onto the dry track, you have to really push a lot to build the temperature and pressure back up again."
Teams can help their riders too. "What we suggest to the teams is to increase the tire pressure by 0.2 Bar, because when you lose the temperature and arrive on the dry tarmac, you still have some pressure in the tires. This helps a lot."
The nature of the motorcycle in question helps too. A high bike with a lot of weight transfer can help stress the tires more, and get more temperature back in the tire. "This is very important too, if the center of gravity is high, you have more pitch, so you have more stress, so it helps you to warm up. If the bike is too slow, too stiff, it doesn't help the tire. So it's a combination of bike, and rider, and riding style."
Theory and praxis
That dry theory is all well and good, but actually putting it into practice is another thing altogether. The riders have to leave the pits, knowing their tires are rapidly losing the heat that generates precious grip as they roll slowly through the soaking pit lane, then attack the track with as much aggression as they can muster, trusting that this will quickly return the heat which has just been leached out of them. If they get it right, then fame, glory, and more importantly, pole position awaits. If they don't, then their fate is a trip through the gravel, grip failing when they brake for a corner and pitch into a turn. It's not quite blind faith which is needed, but it is an unflinching belief in your ability to make this work.
So it should be unsurprising that only Marc Márquez and Jack Miller really got the best out of their slicks. Nor should it come as a shock that Márquez took pole – the 58th of his career, equaling fellow Honda legend Mick Doohan. What was a shock, even to seasoned journalists accustomed to watching Marc Márquez perform the impossible on a bi-weekly basis, was the speed at which he lapped the track on slicks, and the ease with which he passed through the final chicane where it had started raining again, spray coming off the tires like they were wets. Márquez' advantage as he crossed the line was 2.524 seconds. If he hadn't had a moment through that final chicane, it would have been closer to three seconds.
A league of his own
Conditions aligned perfectly for Márquez to shine. There is no one in the same league as the Repsol Honda rider when it comes to stressing slicks on a damp track, in conditions which other riders are clearly treating with caution. Argentina 2018 came to mind, when he was lapping on a damp and tricky circuit three seconds a lap faster than anyone else.
There are riders who can beat Márquez when the track is dry. There are riders who can beat Márquez when the track is wet. But when the track is damp, when conditions are mixed, it's like he is engaged in an entirely different sport. Nobody can even get close.
Jack Miller is the only current rider capable of putting up some semblance of resistance. The Australian grew up on dirt track, and has the aggression and ability to skate along the edge of disaster when grip conditions are unpredictable. But when the Pramac Ducati rider tried to match Marc Márquez, he pushed his luck just a fraction too far, and ended up crashing out on his fastest lap. He had already locked up second place on the grid, and fell in pursuit of that little bit more.
Miller himself put his crash down to being just a few seconds slower to switch to slicks than Márquez. "It took me probably twenty seconds longer than Marc to make the decision to swap to the slick bike," the Australian said. "I think that was the difference. He got out a little earlier. Was maybe half a track in front of me and was able to make it work. I caught the rain in the second-to-last lap in the last corner. I thought, I might get round. Hopefully it will stop, but it was a little bit more wet on the last lap. I was just shy probably about 200 meters." That was enough to ensure pole went to Márquez.
Beyond the pale
Márquez' pole was met with joy in the Repsol Honda garage, but the way he went about it was not universally appreciated. Crew chief Santi Hernandez looked on suffering obvious excruciating tension, punching himself on the top of the head as Márquez chased a fast lap. The normally impassive Alberto Puig gripped the table in the Repsol Honda pit shelter until his knuckles went white, exploding with an uncharacteristic mixture of joy and relief one Márquez crossed the line.
After celebrations in Parc Fermé, rumor has it that once Márquez got back into the garage, he received a stern talking to by several members of his entourage. That astonishing lap was made at enormous risk, risk which he simply did not need to take. But despite leading the championship by 58 points, despite being pretty much guaranteed a starting position on the front row, Márquez' voracious ambition pushed him into making a lap that could have been horrendously costly had it all gone wrong.
"I’m very happy to be on pole position and it was so amazing, the adrenaline and all these things, but after analyzing the situation I took a risk that I don’t need," said a contrite Marc Márquez in the press conference on Saturday evening. "I already saw in Parc Fermé that some of the members in the team were very happy, but some of them, the important ones, the ones that push me more, they were angry because I took too much risk. The target was the front row, not the pole position. Of course it's important, but the target was done."
On the other foot
Márquez received a dose of his own medicine as he sat with his team after qualifying. During the meeting, they had the Moto2 qualifying session on in the background, where his brother Alex Márquez was performing similar miracles on slicks on a damp track, on his way to the Moto2 pole, a pole the younger Márquez took by over two seconds.
"I was still with my leathers and I stopped my meeting with Honda and we were watching the qualifying practice in Moto2," Marc Márquez told the press conference. "I said, 'What's he doing with the slick?' And my team said, 'Hey, shut up! It's what you did!' From outside it's completely different because you don’t know. You see the risk in a different way."
But Márquez still tried to deflect some blame for pushing so hard on his final lap. The reason was not overriding ambition, the Repsol Honda rider said. The reason was that he was worried about losing pole to Miller. "The reason was Jack," Márquez explained, "because Jack was coming with the slicks, and I know that he was coming with the slicks, but I don’t know if he was improving a lot or not. Then just I try to find my limit, but is that lap. The last lap for example is the one that if it’s the next time I will not do. I will not do because my target was the front row. In the last lap I take too much risk. Yeah the pole, but in the end two and a half seconds."
Crush your enemies
Can we believe Marc Márquez when he says it was Jack Miller's fault that he took so much? There is good reason to be skeptical. The Spaniard's appetite for poles and victories is bottomless, but it is not just to satisfy his own thirst for success. It is also to stamp his authority on the grid, to grind the faces of his rivals into the fact of his superiority. If he can demoralize his rivals before the race has even started, his work on Sunday is made all the easier. Qualifying at Brno was an object lesson in convincing your rivals that resistance is futile.
There was much joy, tempered with some realism, at the other end of the front row. The factory KTM team did an outstanding job getting both Pol Espargaro and Johann Zarco through from Q1 into Q2, a result which was met with enormous pleasure on Zarco's side of the garage. That has been a place which has had very little to cheer about since the Frenchman switched to KTM.
Zarco then used the experience picked up during Q1 to judge the conditions in Q2, ending up a fraction behind Jack Miller, and a quarter of a second ahead of Andrea Dovizioso. His third place on the grid is his best qualifying position on a KTM by a country mile, but Zarco was also realistic. "Nice feeling," the Frenchman said. "Huge emotion just for qualifying, but I’m taking it. I went through a hard time and we are still I think in a hard time."
The extra laps in Q1 in the difficult conditions made all the difference in Q2. "We could see the advantage of Q1, Pol and me, because when we start with the rain tires the track was getting even more dry," Zarco explained. "On the first two laps we were the fastest guys. You need to get the feeling quickly, but we did a few laps ten minutes before, fifteen minutes before. So we knew exactly the places we can push."
Not the real world
Qualifying may have been exciting and surprising, but it is not a good measure by which to judge Sunday's race. Yes, Marc Márquez is fast at Brno, but his advantage in the dry – and it will be dry on Sunday – is not 2.5 seconds a lap. Johann Zarco's front row start may have been helped by the changes made in parts and setup found by KTM test rider Dani Pedrosa, with mental support from Zarco's coach and assistance Jean-Michel Bayle, but the Frenchman is unlikely to be a candidate for the podium on Sunday.
The truth is that Saturday was a lost day, the rain giving teams and especially the rookies a chance to gain some experience on a wet track. The plans scheduled for Saturday, and especially FP4, had to be cast aside, making Sunday that much more of a gamble. After Alex Rins and Maverick Viñales put in strong times on the soft rear, many riders had hoped to test the endurance of the tire on Saturday. "It was a test we had to do this afternoon," Danilo Petrucci said on Saturday. "In FP4 we had decided to go with the soft, but unfortunately the rain came and nothing happened."
To get an idea of who should be fast on Sunday, look back at the times on Friday. Track conditions should be similar, the rain removing any rubber which may have been laid down during practice on Friday. It will be dry, but the track will be green, with little grip available.
Fast four-way fight
"I think the battle for the podium tomorrow will be between Marc, Dovi, and Maverick," was Danilo Petrucci's assessment. Petrucci's Ducati teammate, Andrea Dovizioso, concurred with that assessment. "Marc was fast yesterday," the Italian said. "I think me and Marc have a good situation. Also Maverick. Rins. I think they did the practice in the different way so I don’t know about the feeling they had and the choice of the rear tire and the consistency. I can’t know that. But I think these three or four riders will be going to sleep tonight a bit more relaxed."
Tire choice will be crucial, with a lot of riders looking to assess the soft rear tire. With the right setup, especially of the electronics, Michelin's Piero Taramasso said, the soft can last for fifteen or so laps, and provide good performance. The soft rear gives a lot of edge grip, and Brno is a track where the bikes spend two thirds of their time on the edge of the tire, despite the many straights at the circuit. After that, the tire drops off quite badly, and managing that will be crucial.
Last year, all the riders were raving about the hard rear, and it was the tire which nearly everyone raced. But last year, temperatures were much higher, and the hard rear needs track temperatures of at least 35°C before it comes into its own.
Leap in the dark?
With the hard rear ruled out as anything other than a safety option, unless there is a sudden burst of heat on Sunday afternoon, that leaves the choice between the medium and soft rears. "If we take out the hard, there remains the soft and medium," Valentino Rossi said. "But also the medium slide a lot after some laps. So it's not easy and for this reason maybe we need warm-up to understand better with 9-10 laps in a row to understand the feeling and we will see."
With so few riders having tested the soft, they will be studying Maverick Viñales' times from FP2 carefully, after the Spaniard put in an impressive long run on the soft rear. There was a drop with the soft, but it was not clear whether the drop in Viñales' times was down to the tire performance dropping off a cliff, or Viñales just slowing up for a couple of laps.
That made evaluating the soft rear tricky, Andrea Dovizioso said. "For everybody. But the way to test the tire yesterday opened the doors for everybody, speaking about the soft. Maverick did a really good run but it dropped a lot. But only he can know really if the drop is… if he slowed down or because it was the real drop of the rear tire. But he did a really good pace and I think the drop will be high. Maybe for the soft it will be higher. There is a big difference between the soft and medium, compared to other race. So that will affect a lot the race. That creates a bit of confusion."
Watch the grid carefully on Sunday. There will be a lot of rear wheels swapped on the grid, decisions on race tires left until the very last moment possible.
Finally, back to Marc Márquez vs Alex Rins. What started off as an innocent-looking brush turned into an ill-tempered confrontation. On Márquez' last lap on wets, he was circulating relatively slowly, when Jack Miller and Alex Rins came up behind him. Márquez appeared to let Miller past at Turn 5, glancing back as he did so, before closing the door on Rins. Two turns later, Rins forced his way past Márquez, bumping the Honda aside.
That got Márquez' blood up. A couple of tough passes ensued as they headed toward the pit, then both entered together, Rins not wanting to give Márquez any room in pit lane. Márquez pushed Rins aside as they exited pit entrance and into pit lane proper, before both riders parked up in front of their respective garages. Which just happened to be right next door to each other.
Alex Rins was not at all pleased with the incident. "At corner 5, he went a little bit wide and behind him was Miller and me," the Suzuki rider explained. "When he went wide he looked back and saw Jack and me. Jack passed him, but then he went back onto the line, and sincerely, he disturbed me. I was not super fast but I was pushing, so on the next left corner I tried to do my line. He opened a little a bit the door and I went in. I touched him but I think it's his fault, if he is riding slow he needs to open the door and that's it."
"But anyway, then in the last corner, he braked super hard to overtake me," Rins went on. "Nothing more. Then when we were coming into the box I was in front of him, and I went straight and he has no space to ride by my side." He should have closed the throttle and let Rins get ahead, the Spaniard said.
Question of perspective
Marc Márquez had a slightly different view. "I went wide in turn five and then Jack overtook me, because I check behind," Márquez told the press conference. "I only saw Jack overtook me. Then I tried to follow Jack because we know that he has a good pace also on wet tires in FP4. Then at turn seven, I went a little bit too wide. It was a small space, but enough and [Rins] overtook me with contact. This is racing. The funny thing was when we go in on the box that was the tires there. I didn’t have the space because he was going in that way. I don’t know if it was intentional or not. This I don’t know. Then just for me, it was not important."
There is a history there that goes beyond today. Alex Rins was teammates with Alex Márquez, Marc's younger brother, and the fact that Alex was given preferential treatment by the Márquez' brothers' manager (and at the time, Estrella Galicia team boss) Emilio Alzamora has always rankled. Márquez is now the reigning champion, and Rins the usurper, and there is no love lost between the two.
So it is difficult to make the relationship between the two any more difficult. Speaking to Spanish journalists, Rins suggested that Márquez was still suffering peripheral vision problems as a result of his crash at Sepang in 2011, when he damaged a nerve in his eye. Rins later walked back that accusation, saying that he should not have said anything about a crash of a rival.
Though no formal complaint was made, Suzuki did call Race Direction and ask them to review the incident. They did not demand that Márquez be punished, but they did imply as much by asking for the review.
Rivals make rebels
What should we make of this incident? It is a natural result of Marc Márquez' ascendancy in MotoGP. Márquez is clearly top dog in the premier class, and the youngsters who have come come into MotoGP make no bones that they are gunning for him. Rins and Fabio Quartararo make little attempt to hide their animosity toward Márquez.
"It's a tricky thing because for sure he is now one step in front of everybody," Rins said. "He put the slick tires and he was super fast. But I think he has no respect for the other riders. He is riding in his way." It was not the first time Márquez had tried to intimidate his rivals, Rins said. "Also what happened in FP1 with Viñales was more or less the same. Marc loves to play this game and try to get in the head of other riders."
Expect more of this over the next couple of years. But that is fine. Motorcycle racing thrives on a fierce and bitter rivalry. And right now, riders are lining up to be rivals with Márquez. That is the consequence of being the best in the world.
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