Confidence plays a key role in racing. Having confidence in yourself, in your team, in your bike, in your strategy. If you have confidence in every part of the jigsaw puzzle which goes to make up motorcycle racing, you can exceed expectations. Motorcycle racing may play out on 300 hp machines around six kilometer stretches of asphalt, but the fifteen centimeters of gray matter between the ears is where winning and losing is decided.
That confidence is what explains so much of Marc Márquez' success throughout his career. He has confidence in his ability, gained through hours and hours of practice, and hard training in preparation. He has confidence in his team, having worked with the same group of people for most of his career. He has confidence in his bike: it may not do everything he would want, but he understands exactly what it will and won't do, and can make it do what he needs it to do. He has confidence in the ability of his team and himself to come up with a strategy to cope with whatever a race weekend throws at them.
All these things combined are what has allowed him to win five MotoGP championships and 50 MotoGP races. Each of these elements of confidence feeds into the other, in a virtuous circle, making him stronger. And they allow him to take risks at the right time to gain maximum advantage.
Take FP3, for example. Márquez came into the Saturday morning session in second place in the combined standings, nearly three tenths ahead of Maverick Viñales and with a very real chance of advancing straight to Q2 without having to chase a single fast lap at the end of the session. And so he could spend three runs working on race setup and testing tires, figuring out what will work best on Sunday afternoon during the race.
In the final ten minutes of FP3, as the other riders came in to chase a quick lap to put them through to Q2, Márquez went out for his third run in race trim, using a medium rear with 17 laps on it to push for another three laps, putting full race distance on the tire. He was dropping down the timesheets, but he was still well inside the top ten, and with no cause for concern.
With just over three minutes left on the clock, Márquez came into the pits to swap to his second bike setup for qualifying, using new tires front and rear to chase a fast time. He left with 2'40 on the clock, enough for an out lap, and then a single flying lap before the checkered flag for the end of the session. That bumped him back up to third, though the lap he had done on Friday would have been good enough for ninth, and safe passage to Q2.
That confidence borders on contempt for his rivals. He knows that he is so much better over a single lap than the other MotoGP riders that he doesn't have to take the threat of being out of Q2 particularly seriously, especially if the weather and the conditions are stable. That means he can spend more time on race setup, refining the details that can give him the edge on Sunday, while the rest have to worry about staying out of Q1. Confidence builds on confidence, advantage builds on advantage.
Márquez' confidence also allows him to follow his own strategy more freely. It meant he could wait patiently in the garage in Q2 while the other riders all filed out early to try to squeeze more than two flying laps out of Silverstone's vast expanse of tarmac. When it takes just under two minutes to get around a circuit, the number of laps you can do in a fifteen-minute session (from a standing start) is extremely limited. An out lap, flying lap, in lap and tire change is already the best part of seven-and-a-half minutes, or exactly half a session. Sitting in pit lane takes nerves of steel.
But if you have nerves of steel, sitting in pit lane can pay off handsomely. Márquez waited until he had clear track ahead of him, went out, and posted a very good lap time on his own, good enough for the second row, had he not improved his time later. On his second run, he found himself in the middle of a pack of riders, including Valentino Rossi, Jack Miller, Danilo Petrucci, Cal Crutchlow, and Aleix Espargaro. Exiting pit lane, Márquez slowed up to let Rossi past, knowing that Rossi had set a lap which was only good enough for twelfth on his first run.
A game of cat and mouse unfolded. Rossi pushed, Márquez followed. Rossi backed off, Márquez slowed up. Jack Miller joined in, riding out front, then slowing up to let Rossi and Márquez past, then running off when Márquez fooled him into getting ahead of the Spaniard. The trio slowed almost to a standstill. But the clock was ticking, and only one of them desperately needed to set a time. Marc Márquez was second fastest with two minutes to go, Miller third. They might lose places, but they would still be on the crucial front two rows of the grid by the end of the session, even if they didn't put in another fast lap.
Valentino Rossi did not have that luxury. He had to push, and so like polar bears waiting at a seal's breathing hole, all Márquez and Miller had to do was sit and wait. Rossi would have to take a shot at a fast lap at some point, and Márquez and Miller could use him as a target to put in an even faster lap. At a fast, flowing track like Silverstone, the bikes don't necessarily need a two, but having a hare to chase to judge braking points and acceleration can really help shave time off a lap.
Rossi's qualifying lap was outstanding, just edging past the time of Fabio Quartararo, set on the Frenchman's first run. But Márquez and Miller followed him through, Márquez taking four tenths off the time of Rossi, and Miller just a fraction slower than the Yamaha man.
Rossi was disappointed to be only second, but knew this was the best he could get under the circumstances. "The qualifying was a bit tricky, because I started last with the first tire, but in the back straight everybody was waiting," Rossi said. "So at the end from last, I arrive on the grid first. But I don’t want to make pull everybody, so I slow down but I know I have just one card to play. At the end, I was with Marc and Jack, but I try. I try at the end on the last lap and was a great lap. I enjoy very much."
Getting it right
Márquez acknowledged that he had played his strategy perfectly. He had not been looking for Rossi's wheel in particular, it was just the way the session played out, he explained. "We go out from the pits and we go in together, and we go out together. But because of the tarmac here, you cannot play or you cannot change a lot the strategy because the lap is so long. You cannot stay a lot of time in the box." His only option was to see what was possible during his first run in Q2, he explained. "For that reason with the first tire that you can manage a little bit the strategy. The team made the perfect strategy because I went on the track alone, but then of course with the second tire I was in the middle of the traffic. But I played my strategy."
Jack Miller had benefited from the situation which played out in front of him. "It was fun and games with Marc and Vale on the back straight there," the Australian joked. "I knew Marc wanted to go for pole. He never wants to be second. He was sitting in second so I knew he was going to do a lap. So I just had to sneak behind him. He was going to do a lap sometime soon, and I was able to tow along."
Fabio Quartararo could have ended up further forward, if it hadn't been for a problem with his pneumatic valves. After his first flying lap, the Petronas Yamaha SRT rider came back into the pits, frantically pointing at his dashboard and hopping off into the garage. The team tried to put some high-pressure gas back in the tank they use to power the pneumatic valve springs, but it appeared to have sprung a leak. The red lights at the top of his dash flashed an angry red, the valve issue unresolved.
The warning light had come on early in his first flying lap, the Frenchman told us. "Coming out of Turn 6," is when he saw it, he said. "Even if you think you are full gas when you see this light you are not really confident on the bike. I still managed to get a really good lap time but I was a bit scared when I saw the alarm. I finished my lap and after I needed to come in."
It takes a great deal of confidence to keep the throttle pinned, despite a row of rapidly flashing red lights blinking at you from the dash. But Quartararo kept pushing, completed his lap, and set a time good enough for fourth. But his team did not have time to switch the front tire over in the pits, so he was sent out on a tire he wasn't comfortable with.
"I didn’t have enough time to change the front tire and at the end I had a soft and soft," Quartararo said. "I wasn’t feeling really good with the soft front tire. We didn’t really try it. I tried it in FP1 and it wasn’t the best feeling. Anyway I was quite happy because I could make more or less the same lap time as before. Unfortunately we are not on the front row but we had the pace all the weekend."
Fast early or fast late?
Will Marc Márquez' confidence carry him to victory on Sunday? That is an open question. The Repsol Honda rider clearly has the pace, but he has also tipped his hand. Márquez will be trying to make a break early, and control the race from the front. As fellow Paddock Pass Podcaster Neil Morrison pointed out to me, he appears to be in a similar situation to Brno, another track where we thought the Yamahas would be strong.
His problem is that there are five or six riders all with similar pace. Fabio Quartararo is outstanding, not just on a single lap, but also in terms of race pace. Maverick Viñales has chosen to focus on the second half of the race, using FP4 to do a single run of three-quarter race distance, completing his fifteenth and final lap in 1'59.907, likely to be several tenths quicker than anyone else by that stage of the race. The question is whether Viñales can make up ground he loses in the first half of the race with the searing pace he appears to have toward the end.
Valentino Rossi is also not far off, the Italian back to form after a few mediocre races. But the factory Yamaha rider's experience tells him it is still too early to be making any predictions. "It's difficult try to study the race on Saturday," Rossi said. "You can have some idea, but the important is how is the start, how you feel with the tires in the first lap. I think that this time four or five riders have great pace, so we will see."
New asphalt, new lines
Andrea Dovizioso has also found some more pace, figuring out that he had to change his lines to be competitive, to get the best from the new asphalt. Dovizioso had struggled on the first day, but after looking at the data, he had figured out what he needed to change. The track is faster, but that forces riders to use different lines to exploit the lack of bumps.
Dovizioso also sees four or five riders with good speed. "Marc at this moment is faster, but after him I think we are five riders minimum to fight for the podium," the factory Ducati rider said. "It could be hard because at this moment the three Yamahas and Rins are pretty good about the pace and especially the qualifying. But also in pace they are really good."
If there is a concern for the Ducati riders, it is that so many of them suffered technical issues this weekend. Jack Miller and Andrea Dovizioso had what appeared to be clutch issues, and Miller had previously had an electrical issue. If they are to fight, the bikes need to make it to the end of the race. That is not as easy as it seems...
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