If ever there were a day where qualifying and practice told two very different stories, it was Saturday at Brno. The tales were linked and related, interwoven in many ways, but the differences outweighed the common threads. The grid tells a tale of heroism, surprises, and the cruel application of sensible rules. Practice is a story of dark foreboding, of the grim war of attrition that awaits on Sunday afternoon. Qualifying was tough; the race is going to be much, much tougher.
Qualifying is always the highlight of Saturday afternoon, though the final free practice session, FP4, is what matters most. With nothing on the line but race setup, and conditions close to what they will face at race time on Sunday afternoon, teams and riders show what they are really capable of. Even then, the story told is not in the overall result, but tucked away in the analysis timesheets, where teams send out riders on old tires, to see how they hold up once they get a lot of laps on them. The secret code created by combining tire compound with tire age and run duration is almost impossible to decipher, but there are fragments of the real story of the weekend tucked away for the diligent student.
But it is qualifying that gets all the attention, and on Saturday, it was worth it. There was the usual drama of a thrilling FP3 session that saw the final fifteen minutes erupt into the usual frenzy as riders pushed for a lap to try to ensure a ticket straight to Q2. Some big names stumbled at that hurdle, most notably the Ducatis of Andrea Dovizioso and Jack Miller. Danilo Petrucci scraped into Q2 with the tenth fastest time, just nudging Suzuki's Alex Rins into eleventh. Excusable for Rins, as he is still suffering with his injured shoulder.
The fact that Petrucci's time in FP3 was just over a quarter of a second slower than Franco Morbidelli's best lap is a testament to just how close MotoGP has become. A pleasure for the fans, of course, but the bane of the modern MotoGP rider. Seven tenths of a second covering the first sixteen riders, over 5.4 kilometers, the longest track on the calendar, is unthinkably close. The smallest mistake on a fast lap automatically drops you any number of places.
No room for error
It can even cost you a trip to Q2, or even a front row start. The smallest of track excursions kept Takaaki Nakagami out of Q2, when his fastest lap in Q1 was canceled, a lap that would have put him inside the top two by just one thousandth of a second ahead of Brad Binder. As he exited Turn 12, the second part of the penultimate set of left-right combinations that are really too big to be called a chicane, Nakagami stayed on the kerbs a fraction too long, running just off the end and across the green artificial surface before getting both wheels back on the track proper. Race Direction was merciless: lap canceled, and he dropped from second to seventh. No Q2, starting instead from seventeenth on the grid.
Nakagami had seen on his pit board that the best time in the session was a 1'56.2, and saw the same time come up on his dashboard as he crossed the line. But when he looked on the timing screens, he saw he was still seventh. "The team explained that I was out of the kerb and touched the green, so the lap time is canceled," the LCR Honda rider said. "At that time I thought this is impossible, but I saw the replay, and you can see clearly I touched the green with both tires. I'm really sorry for the team, but on the other hand, I tried my best and this is the limit."
Nakagami was frustrated but resigned. "This is MotoGP. It's so difficult. If you make a mistake, or if you are missing something, your position drops a lot. This is not true for the times, but this is the reality of the position." But that also left room to be optimistic, the LCR Honda rider told us. "It means we are so close with everyone, it means we have a chance. Especially, this weekend will be tough for the tire drop, that will be the key point for tomorrow. And I think everyone will have big trouble."
Bumps vs kerbs
He hadn't felt the moment he ran off the track, Nakagami explained. "No. Because I was pushing at the limit, and I didn't see very well," he said. "I thought that moment, maybe on the limit. But I'm not sure whether it was or not." The fact that the track is so bumpy makes it hard to tell where the track ends and where the kerbs begin in some places. "At this track there are big, big bumps everywhere, in every corner, and especially Turn 12. I touched the green on the exit of Turn 12, and this corner, at the point of the exit, there are big waves or a big hole. As you can see on the TV, everyone is shaking the bike, and even difficult to hold onto the bike."
When you are pushing to the limit, it is easy to just tip over, Nakagami explained. "Everyone is so close to the limit, and unfortunately, I was over the limit. As you can see also, the critical point is Turn 12 and the last corner, Turn 14. Nobody gains anything, but these are the rules, if you touch the green, and if you don't gain, but everyone has their lap time cancelled. Everyone complains, but nothing you can do."
Robbed by flags
Pol Espargaro was a good deal less stoic about the penalty which took his best lap time away. The factory KTM rider posted a searing lap which would have put him second on the grid, were it not for the fact that it was set as he was passing through a section where yellow flags were being waved to warn of a crash by Cal Crutchlow. It had been an impressive lap, set on his own, without any help from other riders, and it would have equaled his best qualifying result on the KTM, set last year at Misano.
"You know when you are risking your life, literally, to do these laps and they take it away in that way it’s just unfair," the factory KTM rider fumed. "I don’t like unfair things. I have been in this project for a long time and fighting a lot and finally we are here. I do this kind of lap – fighting a lot to get it – and the work did not pay off."
Espargaro was especially angry at the fact that the yellow flags had not been visible due to the placement of the marshal posts. "There is a yellow flag, which we all need to respect, but they need to do a good work as well. In that place it was already late. They cannot show a yellow flag in the same corner and in between two corners where I cannot see."
A safety issue
It wasn't just that he had had his lap time taken away from him, it was also that the yellow flags not being visible at that point because of the position of the marshal posts was also dangerous. "Cal was on the ground so my lap doesn’t matter," Espargaro said. "I am four positions back but he was still on the ground! I was super-fast in that corner and I could have crashed there also because I was risking a lot."
What was needed were the large digital flag screens being fitted at tracks such as Misano and Assen. This is something the riders had suggested in the Safety Commission, Espargaro said, though a quicker fix would be to display the yellow flags earier. "We did because it is the best way to see it, but in the end if you put the yellow screen in the middle of two corners then the result is going to be the same. If they put the yellow flag one corner earlier in 8 then I would really see it and kill my speed."
The big surprise of qualifying was the pole sitter, however. Just like last year, Johann Zarco pulled something special out of the bag to secure a grid position well beyond any reasonable expectations. But unlike last year, Zarco had no help from the weather conditions. And also unlike 2019, Zarco scored his result on a bike he is growing to understand and love, and not one he would decide to abandon a week later, when he announced he would be leaving the factory KTM team a year early.
Zarco scored his first pole with a superb lap on the Avintia Ducati GP19, the oldest bike on the grid, alongside his teammate, Tito Rabat's machine, with a team he had dismissed at the end of last year as not being good enough to be in MotoGP. But the combination of extra resources from Ducati and real motivation to try to atone for a miserable 2019 has driven Zarco on to greater heights.
The Frenchman had been shocked at his own success, he told the press conference, and had not been expecting to be on pole. "It was really emotional this pole position," Zarco said. "I saw the lap time and I was even surprised because was a huge difference compared to the lap time before with the first tire I used at the beginning of qualifying. Then I was thinking, that can be a good lap time to have a good position."
Pushed hard at the end
He hadn't expected to hang on to pole. "When I crossed the line, I saw the P1 from my team. They were happy. But I was still thinking in the mind, I knew some other guys will improve. They sprint all along the track. So you have the smile, but in the other way you say, okay, just be happy for the time because not sure about the pole position."
For a while, it looked like he was right to doubt whether he could hold on to pole. On his very last lap, Fabio Quartararo had been pushing hard, and looked like he would threaten Zarco's best time until he crashed in the penultimate corner. That crash led to the rather unfortunate spectacle of the TV director cutting to Zarco's crew cheering. It is easy to assume they were cheering Quartararo's crash, but that is fairly obviously incorrect. They were crashing the fact that Johann Zarco had just secured the team's first ever pole position in MotoGP. They should be allowed to celebrate a truly remarkable achievement, though it was open to misinterpretation.
Zarco sits ahead of the two Petronas Yamaha teammates, Quartararo in second, making for a French one-two, the first time that has ever happened in Grand Prix history (or at least since pole records started to be kept methodically in 1973), and an all-satellite team front row, Franco Morbidelli completing the top three. Both Morbidelli and Quartararo have shown outstanding pace all weekend, and a front row start was a just reward.
Does grid position matter?
The question is, just how important a good qualifying position is at Brno. The track is wide, and has plenty of places to pass. And the race is likely to be a real war of attrition, with the rider best able to manage their tires to the end of the race. Opinions were divided on the significance of grid position. For Valentino Rossi, starting from tenth, he feared it would be impossible to challenge. "Unfortunately I have to start from P10, and this is very bad news for the race," the factory Yamaha rider told us. "Because everybody is strong and starting from behind for the race will be very hard, but my pace is good. So I need to start well and try to make a good race to recover some positions."
A poor qualifying had ruined an otherwise very good day for the nine-time champion. "Today for me is a mixed feeling because especially in the morning I was very fast and I feel good with the bike and tires," Rossi said. "It was a very good practice. Unfortunately in the afternoon the temperature raised a lot and the asphalt was ten degrees more than yesterday and we unfortunately we suffer. We want to continue with the medium front but it was too hot at the end and I suffer also in the qualifying."
One position ahead of him, from ninth, starts Joan Mir, and the Suzuki Ecstar rider was much less concerned about his starting position. "Of course, it changes to start in the first row than in the third row. This changes a little bit," Mir said. "But is not a big drama. In the past, a lot of people were able to win the race starting from P9. It’s not a big problem if you have pace. Even more here that the track is so long and the race is so long. You have a lot of laps to recover."
Mir wasn't worried about having riders ahead of him who he believed he was stronger than in terms of race pace. "What is true that a lot of riders in front are super fast to make one lap, but then you don’t see the pace. They are able to improve two seconds from used tire to new tire and this is unbelievable." Mir believed good race pace outweighed a quick single lap, however. "In our case, it’s difficult to do that but I feel great riding the bike with used tires. I’m able to maintain the good lap times. I think that 1'57.9, 1'57 high and 1'58 low will be the pace to win the race. We are not too far from that. But who knows?"
Spins vs durability
The race on Sunday is going to be long, hard, and require patience. Tire choice is going to be crucial, perhaps even more so than usual, with most riders opting for the soft rear tire for the race, Michelin boss Piero Taramasso said. "For the rear, the soft and medium work quite well. It looks like two thirds of the riders will go with the soft, one third will go with the medium, because the medium gives you better stability. The only thing they need to do now is find the right stability."
It seems odd that in hot temperatures – track temperatures are expected to be in the low 50s on Sunday – the soft would be preferable to the hard. The reason for that is simply down to the amount of grip offered by the rear tire. The hard has better durability, in theory, but it also has less grip, which means it spins more quickly, and that is bad for the tire.
"You cannot stress too much the rear tire, you cannot put too much power into the tire in one shot, because if you do, you spin very easily, and once the rear spins, it's very difficult to stop it," Taramasso explained. The softer compounds have more grip, and so are less likely to spin initially. But how they treat the throttle will be the most important factor, Taramasso explained. "Riders have to be very smooth and very gentle on the gas. So I think this is the key for tomorrow's race. We expect some drop, probably after 15 laps, the race is 21, so we expect that after 15 laps we will have some drop on the rear tire."
Here be tire drops
The race will be something of a voyage into the unknown, especially for a rookie such as Brad Binder. How did the KTM rookie approach that? By examining what happened in 2019, the South African explained. "If you have a look at last year’s race it is like there are two parts to it," Binder said. "You had the start where the guys were sending it, and the second half where the guys were trying to get the bike home. The lap times were 1'59s."
That was what Binder was preparing for, he said. "I expect a little bit of the same tomorrow, not quite as bad as last year because I think our drop is a little bit less than what the people explained last year. On one hand it can be good and it can be bad because I don’t know what I am getting myself into really, and on the other it might be better because I’ll just have to deal with it when it comes. It is pretty tough: when the tires are used here it is difficult to get the grip down and especially the pumping on the exit of the corners. Once it starts you lose all the speed through the entire straight, so it’s gonna be a big learning curve but I am up for the challenge."
Ordinarily, the scenario of tire management would favor the Suzukis, and the analysis timesheets certainly show that Joan Mir and especially Alex Rins have a real turn of pace on the GSX-RR. The Suzuki is also known to be very gentle on its tires – the flip side of poor qualifying, and the inability of extracting that little bit more in search of a single fast lap.
The pain barrier
But Alex Rins faces a much greater challenge, and it isn't related to his starting position. He has outstanding pace, good enough for the podium at least, but the question is whether his shoulder will last for the full 21 laps. Saturday had been tough enough. "I struggled a lot today," he admitted. "FP3 was good but we are out of Q2 for nothing. That was hard for me because I gave my 100 percent to be inside. In FP4 I tried to forget the pain and I tried to concentrate on the set up of the bike. It was a good feeling."
But the double stress of passing through Q1 to get to Q2 took its toll. "In Q1, I gave my 100 percent to be in Q2, I did the fastest lap. Then for Q2 I started not at 100% because I was full of pain. But more or less I did the 2 laps not so bad. We start P11 for tomorrow. I think the key for tomorrow’s race is to be there in the first five laps. After 5-7 the tire life drops a lot here in Brno."
The bumpy track at Brno was placing a strain on Rins' damaged shoulder, but not where you might expect, on braking and corner entry. "The bumps on the exit of the corner make the bike more aggressive, and that’s giving me pain." He hadn't used any painkillers on Saturday, but he would take some on Sunday and hope they would help for as long as possible. "For tomorrow I will use them. I can do 5 to 10 laps well, but then it starts to be a problem in the race. Let’s see with the painkillers if I can be more constant."
Old vs new
We had come to Brno expecting this to be a strong track for the Ducati, but Johann Zarco was the only Ducati on the first two rows. Danilo Petrucci starts from eight, while Jack Miller and Andrea Dovizioso are down in fourteenth and eighteenth respectively.
It is strange that the new bike, the Ducati Desmosedici GP20, should be outperformed by the machine from last year, the GP19 in the hands of Johann Zarco. There was a hint of something similar at Yamaha, with Franco Morbidelli, on a developed version of the 2019 M1, has been matching and beating the riders on the very different 2020 M1.
Newer isn't always better, though, Valentino Rossi explained from bitter experience. "Sometimes, the engineers try to improve the bike and the numbers in the computer look like the new bike is better," Rossi told us. "But after when you put the bike on the track the feeling for the rider is worse. This happened a lot of times with Yamaha! So it's good that it happens also to the other manufacturers."
This wasn't just true for Ducati this year, but also for other factories, Rossi said. "Also Honda, the new bike is more difficult than the old bike, and also Ducati. It's not an easy situation because you have a lot of expectation for the new bike but sometimes the feeling and the balance, the magic that you have, is better with the old bike."
It's the tires, stupid
For the Ducati riders, the answer is simple. It's not the bike, but the 2020-spec Michelin, with the softer casing. "For sure it’s the tire," Andrea Dovizioso said. "It’s the only difference compared to last year. This is only clear thing I’ve had in my mind. This is not an excuse, just the reality."
Setup changes failed to fix the problem. "We change a lot of things but it looks like we didn’t change the way the rear tire affects everything," Dovizioso said. "I’m not riding in a good way like in the past. In the past I was able to brake hard, control the slide until the middle of the corner and pick up bike. I could be a bit long and come back to the middle of the corner and pick up the bike… I’m not able to do that. This is the point. We change a lot of things and we couldn’t really fix it."
Jack Miller is convinced that the GP20 is a much better machine than the GP19, and laid the blame entirely at the feet of Michelin. "This year's bike is definitely better," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "It's a factor with this rear tire that there's shaking absolutely everywhere. Not only our bike, it's quite critical on our bike, but if you're here watching on track or even if you get around some other bikes, you exit from Turn 2 and all the way to Turn 3, the thing's fishtailing all the way up the straight. Nobody has any stability in the tire, and it seems like this is affecting our bike maybe a little bit more than last year."
Yet other manufacturers appear to be adapting to the new rubber. KTM have made a huge step forward, and the Yamahas and Suzukis are much more competitive. Where Honda stands is hard to tell at the moment, with Marc Márquez out through injury and Cal Crutchlow nursing a fractured scaphoid, while Taka Nakagami is on a 2019 Honda RC213V. And Aprilia has such a brand new bike that it is hard to make any comparisons at all.
Lost, for the moment
So what Ducati has to do is unclear. "At the moment, I'm sort of scratching my head, trying to understand what it is, what I need to do," Jack Miller said. "The biggest thing is we can't be aggressive with this. I'm one of the better guys on the tire, but you can't change do anything, you can't change direction quickly, because if you do that, the bike will start moving. You can't open the gas with really any lean angle, you have to wait and then be very, very linear with it. So you can’t do anything aggressive with it, otherwise it just doesn’t work at all. With that bike, you kind of need to ride it aggressive."
Until Ducati find a remedy, they are stuck. Their best hope is that the race tomorrow is such a war of attrition that they can pick their way through the casualties of tire wear, and pick up places as others suffer. It is going to be a very long Sunday at Brno. For everyone.
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