The new MotoGP format was supposed to bring a little more excitement to a weekend, and it has certainly done that. If anything, it has brought a little too much excitement at some points: Of the 22 riders who turned up on the Thursday before the season opener at Portimão, only 17 started the race a week later in Argentina.
The sprint races themselves have made for fantastic viewing, mainly because they have encouraged riders to try to make more passes. The problem is, the MotoGP manufacturers – or rather, the European manufacturers which are dominating MotoGP – are doing everything in their power to build bikes that are hard to overtake. So the only way to get past is to take a lot more risk, especially on the opening lap.
I say 'only way', but in fact there is another way to get to the front without taking any risks in passing. And that is to take risks during qualifying. And to take risks in qualifying, you first have to take risks in the two practice sessions on Friday, to ensure a spot in Q2. If you are starting on the front row, you have to worry a great deal less about what happens behind you.
Jerez has been a case in point. Or perhaps, a turbocharged case which makes the point incredibly forcefully. Saturday saw thrills and spills, a scintillating session of qualifying leading into a thrilling race, replete with passes and incidents. We also saw a red flag come out at the start of the race after a terrifying crash, from which everyone involved emerged almost (but not quite) unscathed. And we have a penalty to liven up the mix and add even more controversy.
Whatever the weather
Let's start with qualifying. Securing a front row start is the quickest way to success in this modern iteration of MotoGP. It leaves you with less work to do, it gives you the best chance of getting away, and it means you don't have to worry about either tire pressure or temperature, with no one in front of you to suck the cooling air away from your front tire.
Qualifying is often exciting enough on its own, but on Saturday morning, the weather gods decided to lend a helping hand. After a cool but dry session of free practice, Q1 started dry, with Pecco Bagnaia and Brad Binder making their way through to Q2. At the very end of the Q1 session, thunder began rolling from the dark clouds which had sneaked up on the circuit from the west, and rain started to fall.
The track was wet enough to scare people off going for a fast lap early, but dried incredibly quickly. Lap times dropped by nearly 6 seconds from Jack Miller's first flying lap to Aleix Espargaro's final pole position. The track was easily dry enough for slicks – though Espargaro's pole lap was 0.7 slower than the time Pecco Bagnaia set to make his way through from Q1, and over a second slower than the outright pole record held by the Italian – as long as you stayed away from the white paint. Those who ventured too close were punished with a terrifying shake of the bike, and a lap you could throw away.
In the end, qualifying position was almost a lottery, and depended more on getting the timing of your last flying lap just right. The later you went, the better chance you had, Aleix Espargaro one of the very last to cross the line. Espargaro had stayed out all session on one set of tires, though the first couple of rows had all tried different strategies.
Jack Miller had used the traditional approach of two new soft rear tires to nab second place in qualifying. Jorge Martin took a similar but slightly divergent approach to grab third, doing one long run and then one short run, the opposite to Miller's short and then long run. Brad Binder had used a set of wet tires to judge conditions, before coming in and swapping to slicks, ending fourth. Pecco Bagnaia, through from Q1, had used an old tire for his first run, a new one for his second run, and been fast enough to secure fifth. And Dani Pedrosa had gone out on slicks, come back to do one lap on wets, then gone back out again on a new soft tire to wrap up sixth.
When the lights went out at the start of the sprint race, the perils of the new format became all too clear. While Jack Miller got away at the front, leading Brad Binder and Aleix Espargaro, behind them, the field bunched up for Turn 2. That corner is vital: you need to carry enough speed on the exit of Turn 2 to be fast through Turns 3 and 4, which sets you up for the fast right of Turn 5, which launches you down the back straight and towards the old Dry Sack hairpin, now renamed Dani Pedrosa.
With so many riders vying for position, a collision was nigh on inevitable, and Franco Morbidelli spied a gap on the inside of Turn 2, trying to hold a tight line to prepare for Turn 3. On the outside of Morbidelli, ahead and unable to see the #21 Yamaha, Alex Marquez cut back to the inside of Turn 2, for much the same reason as Morbidelli was there. Marquez and Morbidelli collided, taking down Marco Bezzecchi and Augusto Fernandez in the process, and causing enough of a mess to leave Race Direction no option but to red flag the race.
Who was to blame for the crash? That depended on who you asked. "He got overtaken by Fabio [Quartararo] and he went a bit wide," Franco Morbidelli said of Alex Marquez. "Yeah, I saw a gap, I went to do my corner nice and tight. I didn't want to overtake him. I say, ‘OK, I put my bike here’ and I tried to do the corner nice and tight. And to me the guy came cutting the line and he didn't see me. He left no space. I don't know, but the result is that he cut the line, we touch and I crashed. I didn't want to overtake nobody. I just wanted to do my corner."
Unsurprisingly, Alex Marquez had a different perspective on events. "At that moment I was really angry, but I was really lucky honestly," the Gresini Ducati rider said. He had not seen Morbidelli on the inside, but had been spooked by the speed of Fabio Quartararo who was scything through the field from the start. "I spoke with Fabio, he was a little bit like crazy on the first lap also in the second race," Marquez told us. "I didn't expect that because I was on the inside on the line, there was no space and I heard a bike, I said, ‘where is it coming from?’ And then I feel the contact that was quite big. And as I said, we were really lucky nobody hit us."
But for most riders, the real culprit was the sprint race format. Though the first lap of any race is a perilous affair, the danger in a sprint races seems to double, or more. "This is a totally a sprint race crash, because many overtakes in the early stages," Morbidelli believed.
Alex Marquez agreed. "A sprint race first lap," the Gresini Ducati rider told us. "I mean, in the first race, but also in the second one, I have like 15 contacts! A lot of contacts. It was a little bit crazy today, but OK it’s racing and it’s like it is."
Marquez' Gresini teammate, Fabio Di Giannantonio, was astounded at the behavior of some riders. "I think people just lose their mind when we start the sprint race," he said. "It's incredible how some riders pick up the aggressivity level 100 times. I think for no reason. OK, we know that in MotoGP it's difficult to overtake, the first laps you can try to take some positions, but it's better to take some positions than crash or don't finish the race. I think that there also some riders who do always the same."
Dani Pedrosa, a veteran of the old system in MotoGP, was surprised at how fierce the opening laps were in a sprint race. "The sprint race is really aggressive," the KTM test rider said. "Really aggressive riding. The riders try to gain as many positions as early as possible." Even the restarted race was very physical. "The second start was quite good for me. But I chose to go outside because there were some riders banging inside and I went outside. Somehow, they bang together and I got pushed out and lost T1, and T2 I was outside. I lost a few positions, instead of gaining."