On Friday, at the meeting of the Safety Commission, where MotoGP riders meet with representatives of Dorna and the FIM to speak freely and without penalty about matters pertaining to every aspect of safety (the clue is in the name) at MotoGP events, the riders invited Rivacold Snipers Team Moto3 rider Andrea Migno to attend, to discuss ways to improve safety in the smallest capacity class of Grand Prix racing. The invitation had been issued in response to the terrifying scenes at the Barcelona Moto3 race, where riders were sitting up and backing off in the middle of the track in the final laps of the race. It was a miracle that nobody was seriously injured.
Stern lectures were given, and serious thought given to how to improve the state of affairs, and how to avoid such extremely dangerous situations in the future. The riders and officials gathered there did their level best to find ways to improve the safety of the sport.
Fast forward 11 days, and in the final minutes of MotoGP Q2, those self same riders are sitting up on the racing line, hanging around for a tow, cutting the throttle while others try to follow them, gesticulating wildly at one another as they cross the racing line while riders on fast laps approach at high speed. It was as if the people who were focusing their mental energy on finding ways to prevent riders from creating dangerous situations on track had lost their collective minds, and decided to illustrate the problem by doing all of the things they had been condemning less than 24 hours earlier.
Do as I say, not as I do
In a way, this neatly illustrates the problem with motorcycle racers. Off track, they are thoughtful and genuinely concerned with how to improve the sport, care deeply about safety and about fairness. But once the helmet is on and the visor comes down, a switch is flipped in their minds, and they care only about one thing: winning. All other considerations are subsidiary to that one goal.
All and any means are considered valid, up to and including disregarding their own safety and the safety of others, trampling on the rules and regulations, pushing the boundaries of the rules as far as the authorities are willing to tolerate, and far beyond until they are caught. Just as with the philosophical question of trees falling in a forest and making a sound, is flagrant breach of the rules really cheating unless it is detected by Race Direction, the Stewards, the scrutineers? Is it really cheating if you don’t get caught?
This is not unique to motorcycle racing, but is the common trait running through all elite sports. Athletes compete to win; they do not use banned substances because they enjoy their effects, but because they think it will help them reach their objective and they won’t get caught.
The reaction of the riders to their own actions also illustrated this dichotomy. They were all angry at the scenes which unfolded at the end of Q2, even though they themselves were responsible for it.
Do unto others
Pol Espargaro was typical of a lot of riders. “What I see is it is very sad,” the Repsol Honda rider said. “Because in the last Safety Commission we had Andrea Migno talking with the MotoGP riders and the Stewards saying that for sure the Moto3 category is pretty dangerous at the moment, as you can all see. For sure it’s fun for the spectators, but to have so many guys waiting, and having so many troubles, crashes, one rider hitting another one because they are so tight.”
All had been forgotten the next day, though. “We had him in the Safety Commission, we were talking about how dangerous it is to have everyone waiting and stopped in the middle of the track and blah blah blah. And then we MotoGP guys, we are doing the same. So sure, we are the ones who need to give the good example to them, and we are not doing it. I’m not saying that I don’t do it too. This is a criticism of all the riders, me included. So for sure we need to change this.”
Alex Rins was furious about what happened. “I’m so angry because we can’t continue like this in terms of the Stewards,” the Suzuki rider said. “We are MotoGP riders and try to show to Moto3 we can’t stop, we can’t follow and all these things. Then I find a big, big group on the last corner nearly stopped. I was on a fast lap my first one. 1 or 2 riders go inside without looking behind. This makes no sense.”
Someone needed to act, Rins insisted. “They need to do something. In the end in the Safety Commission we are always talking about this, it’s been a lot of races we are complaining, we are saying they need to be stronger with the decisions but in the end it’s always the same.”
Follow my leader
In reality, the field is divided into two groups: those who can make their lap time alone, and those who need a bit of help, a reference or marker to help them find an extra tenth. Those who can do the lap time on their own are the aggrieved parties. Fabio Quartararo, with five poles to his name and starting from the front of the grid, is one of these. “I have not so much things to say about that because for me I feel it’s a little bit dangerous, but I do it on my own. It’s better and also for the tires and everything to keep it warm I feel much more confidence to start the lap. At the moment, it’s something that I don’t really need. I feel also more safe.”
Jack Miller is in the same camp, though the factory Ducati rider only qualified in fourth. “I was sort of on my own program through Q2. I was trying to do my own job and was kinda out of sync with the other guys. I rolled out a little bit because I was only doing one lap on the first tires.”
That was when he ran into other riders, he explained. “I waited so to not mess up anyone’s lap because it is kind of one-line around here. Then Alex Marquez and Aleix Espargaro decided to start waving their arms at me like I’d done something wrong. They were all following me and I was trying not to disturb them.”
Easy for some
It was frustrating for Miller, because he knew he could have gone faster. “It’s the same here as everywhere else, a heap of guys cannot do the lap-time so they have to get a tow to do it. Simple as that. We on our own program and we were unfortunate at the end with the yellow flags and couldn’t do a lap on the last tire but I definitely felt I had more to give today. Feeling extra inspired for tomorrow’s race.”
The riders who benefited from a tow – and it was a long list – were contrite, but insisted they had no option. “With these long, long left corners you can play so much with the corner speed and getting a reference is always helping,” the Pramac Ducati rider said. “Because for any one tenth sometimes you can have five positions because it’s a small track. Everyone tries to get these tenths. I need some reference even not too close, even if the reference is a bit far it’s still helping me. I try to do it in a good way.”
It certainly helped Zarco. The Frenchman ended up on pole after using Aleix Espargaro as a reference, who was following Pol Espargaro, who was using Fabio Quartararo as a tow. Aleix Espargaro benefited too, getting the Aprilia onto the front row of the grid the first time since Jeremy McWilliams had taken pole position at Phillip Island on the Aprilia RSW500 twin. Even Pol Espargaro benefited, equaling his best qualifying performance on the Repsol Honda with an eighth place.
Like the others, Aleix Espargaro was slightly ashamed, but put it down to the Sachsenring being such a short and tight track. “I know it’s not nice to see this on the TV, especially when the MotoGP riders are always pushing to improve this in terms of safety, especially on the Moto3 class. If you see this in Barcelona or Mugello I think it’s a lot worse, but in a circuit of three kilometers, it’s quite easy that it happens. I’m not saying that it’s right, but it’s quite easy that this can happen because everybody is more or less in the same place,” the Aprilia rider said.
The shortness of the circuit is one factor, for sure, as is the fact that the Sachsenring is so tight and twisty that it is hard to actually find a safe place to get off line and wait for another rider. If you are going to try to pull over, it is always going to be in the same place: in the final sector down the back straight, or between Turns 12 and 13, or on the front straight. Anywhere else on the track and you are pretty much guaranteed to be in the way.
The blink of an eye
The other problem is one already touched on. MotoGP is so close now that every tiny bit helps. Eleven thousandths is the difference between Johann Zarco’s pole time and Fabio Quartararo’s second place on the grid. 0.171 seconds separates Aleix Espargaro’s place on the front row from Jorge Martin’s spot on the third row. Less than six tenths separates first from tenth, just over a third of a second separates third from tenth. Brad Binder missed out on Q2 by less than four hundredths of a second. Even Maverick Viñales, who qualified a lowly 21st, his worst qualifying position in all his time in MotoGP, is less than a second off the time of Johann Zarco on pole position.
This closeness in performance has forced a rethink of all our preconceptions of the relative strengths of the various bikes. Before we arrived at the Sachsenring, pundits – including myself – had declared that its tight and twisty nature meant that this was no track for Ducati, that it was made for the Suzuki and the Yamaha, and maybe for the Honda as well.
And yet a Ducati sits on pole, and Ducatis head up the first four rows of the grid, with Jack Miller in fourth, Jorge Martin in seventh, and Pecco Bagnaia in tenth. There is only one Yamaha in the top fifteen, the Monster Energy M1 of Fabio Quartararo. The next Yamaha is Valentino Rossi in sixteenth. The first Suzuki is Alex Rins in eleventh, Joan Mir not even making it to Q2, qualifying in seventeenth.
Spot the difference
This is the world turned upside down, you might think. In reality, it is tiny details making the difference, rather than radical differences in the character of the bikes. “The MotoGP is getting much more and more close to each other,” pole sitter Johann Zarco told the press conference. “That’s why we can have, not a surprise, but some change. For not a lot, you are not in the right position.”
Fabio Quartararo took a similar view. “I think I forget a little bit about the Yamaha track, the Ducati track,” the Frenchman said. “For me clearly in Qatar it was a Ducati track, in Mugello a Ducati track. At the end in Mugello, I was able to fight for the victory. In Qatar it was two Yamahas.”
It was just as clear at the Sachsenring that any preconceived ideas of which bike was best were utterly wrong. “Just looking at the Sector 2 of Jack, I think it was this morning or in FP4, he was one tenth faster than everybody and we hear a lot about that the Ducati is struggling a lot to turn, but they never use the power in Sector 2,” Quartararo pointed out. “So, I think everything is getting closer and closer. I think there is not much anymore the Ducati track, the Yamaha track, the Suzuki track. I think everything is getting close and I think it’s quite nice.”
Valentino Rossi had been pushing back against the idea of the Sachsenring as a Yamaha track even from the start of the weekend, he said. “Thursday a lot of TV and journalists tell me this is a good track for Yamaha and they ask me why. Sincerely I don’t remember it is a good track for Yamaha in the past! Sometimes in the last years there have been some good results but it is always difficult because here you have very long corners on the left and the tire becomes very hot. When we have this type of track our bike suffers on this point of view compared to our opponents, so it’s not easy. All the other bikes have improved a lot but there are a lot of different bikes in the first five positions I think.”
Pace vs speed
Qualifying, however, didn’t tell the whole story. Sure, the field is close, and there were surprises on the front row, but the very tightness of the Sachsenring played a big part in setting the grid. A few corners after setting his fastest time, Johann Zarco crashed out, bringing out the yellow flags in the second sector. Then, a minute later, with 20 seconds left in the session, Takaaki Nakagami lost the front in Turn 1, bringing out yet more flags. Even if someone had been capable of beating Zarco’s lap time, the lap would have been canceled and the time would not stand.
Qualifying might be important, but it certainly doesn’t tell the whole story. At the Sachsenring, FP4 tells a more profound story, of who is fast and who isn’t. Based on the number of fast laps in FP4, Fabio Quartararo and Miguel Oliveira have the best pace on used tires, with Jack Miller and Marc Márquez close behind.
Marc Márquez admitted he was fast, but downplayed his own chances. “I see a few riders with a very good pace, that are Zarco, Quartararo, and Oliveira, and then we are there, closer to them than on other circuits, but it might be that we are not close enough to fight with them,” the Repsol Honda rider said. His string of pole positions, unbroken since 2009, came to an end on Saturday, and Márquez believed the same would happen to his victory streak on Sunday. “The streak of poles has finished, and tomorrow the streak of victories will as well,” he told the Spanish media.
Staving off the heat
Even the FP4 timesheets don’t tell the whole story: tire management in the heat will be key, the bikes spending a lot of time on the left side of the tire. Takaaki Nakagami, for example, had only finished thirteenth in FP4, but unlike the rest, the LCR Honda rider had started with an old tire, and put race distance on it. In two runs, Nakagami racked up 31 laps on a used medium tire, posting a very respectable 1’22.583 at the very end of the run.
“In FP4 we are trying to understand the race pace, especially with a 20 laps used tire,” Nakagami told us. “I decided to use a used tire and it was really tough, so difficult to control. But in FP4 there is no meaning to make a lap time, just focus on race pace. Because we already knew that below 20 laps, we have good pace, but maybe the last 10 laps, so from lap 20 to lap 30, we are still not 100% sure, so I decided to keep the tire until 30 laps.”
Fabio Quartararo took a similar view, but approached it rather differently. The Monster Energy Yamaha rider wanted to know how his tires would hold up through the race, so he did just a single run in FP4 of 21 laps. “It was something interesting because during FP1, FP2 we made some runs, stop and back out again, but for the tire it’s completely different,” he explained. “I feel on this track especially that when you do twenty laps in a row the tire reacts in a totally different way.”
It is important to try to get away early at the Sachsenring, but getting away early is no good if you burn up your tire and get caught and passed by the rest of the field in the middle of the race. “It was planned that we were going to make the full FP4, and you can see that twenty laps on the tire when you make stop is much more fresh than when you do twenty laps in a row, not really on the degradation but more on the heat on the tire because it’s so much left corners,” Quartararo explained. “But it’s good that we already have that experience and I will know how to manage it and try to manage it and improve at the maximum.”
Quartararo starts the race as favorite, both because he has been fast on old tires and in terms of race pace, and also because he starts from the front row. His three main rivals start from a row behind him, Jack Miller, Marc Márquez, and Miguel Oliveira all very quick on old tires. Whether Márquez can maintain the pace of 30 laps remains to be seen, but it would be foolish to write him off. It was noteworthy that the Spaniard spent rather more time in the pits than most others.
Jack Miller also spent a lot of time in the pits in FP4, though he was not there of his own accord. On his first run of the session, he had a sensor fail one one bike, forcing him back to the pits. “The problem with the bike in FP4 was an electrical issue, one of the sensors went into safe mode. I had to pull off and tow the bike back,” he told us.
That enforced sojourn in the garage means his pace is understated: he may have only done 7 laps in the 1’21 compared to 10 each for Quartararo and Oliveira, but he also did 5 fewer full laps than Quartararo. Jack Miller is confident, and probably rightly so. “I think I’ve done enough work in FP1, 2 and 3 on the semi-used or quite used tires,” the Australian said. “FP4 disrupted me but I was probably going to come in on that lap anyway. It probably knocked a minute off FP4 but I was going on the plan that I had in that session. We’ll see when they cut the tires tonight and what kind of situation we’re in but I feel we’re in a pretty decent one with the rear tire and if you look at my pace I feel like I have one of the better paces but it’s tight, technical and not easy to pass here.”
Turn 1: treacherous or trickery?
Finally, some journalists were asking whether there was a reason that riders seemed to be crashing a lot at Turn 1. Some riders had a mundane explanation: “Some people pushing too much,” Takaaki Nakagami said. “Also for me, I had a crash in Turn 1, but not in the braking area, I just when I went off the brake and touch the throttle I lost the front. So I was pushing a bit too much.”
Miguel Oliveira felt that it was the result of the asymmetric nature of the Sachsenring track, and the tires Michelin had to bring to address that. “As you know the tires here have dual compounds, softer on the right side,” the Portuguese rider said. “When it come to the hard then it amplifies the difference between where is hard and where is soft. It is true that the feeling is never great and for this reason I feel that many guys struggle to stop the bike. One of the reasons why you cannot tip in as hard as you want and keep that front brake pressure as you trail-brake into the apex, that creates a bit of instability and the tire there is just too soft and easy to give up, basically.”
That meant changing the way he braked for Turn 1, Oliveira explained. “Our braking point is just over the crest so if we attack the brakes too much on the first moment we will not be able to stop so good. I cannot speak for the others but I have all the time been saving a few meters there to go wide. It has worked out for me.”
Pol Espargaro had a wilder theory, putting it down to the rear ride-height device releasing under braking and upsetting the balance of the bike. “I think one of the reasons is for sure the rear device. We use it during the lap, it means it goes down on the last corner, and it needs to come up in the first corner,” the Repsol Honda rider explained.
This had consequences, he said. “So the position of the rear is instead of being attached to the ground, it is just coming up. Sure this is not helping for the rear. In our case, for sure it’s making the bike more unstable, which is not safe.”
Reversion to the mean
But there was also a general trend here, the inevitable arms race of technology meaning that as bikes got faster, they had to take more risk. “For sure the bike has more downforce every time which means more power on the straight, which means more speed at the end of the straight, and you can brake later, the front tire is more under stress because the downforce in the front is huge, and for sure more crashes, more mistakes,” Espargaro said. “The technology is making us faster, but also in my opinion it’s making us go more on the limit.”
Are there really more crashes at Turn 1 than otherwise? A glance at the crash sheet shows that so far, there have been 12 fallers at Turn 1, 7 of which were in MotoGP. Compare that to previous years, and that is not an unusually high number. There were 12 crashers at Turn 1 in 2019, 15 in 2018, 9 in 2017, 14 in 2016, and 7 in 2015, though those numbers are for three days, rather than just the Friday and Saturday of the 2021 numbers. 12 crashes at Turn 1 fits into a broader pattern of a relatively high number at the corner.
Perhaps there is a simpler reason why there is so much talk of riders crashing at Turn 1. Ordinarily, we would be discussing once again just how dangerous Turn 11 is with cold tires, as riders pay a very high price for being slightly optimistic in colder temperatures. But with air and track temperatures scorching, cold tires have simply not been an issue, and as a result, there have been no crashes at all at Turn 11. For comparison, there were 2 in 2019, 7 in 2017, 10 in 2016, and 8 in 2015.
There are similar patterns at other corners: there are fewer crashes than normal at Turn 3, Turn 4, Turn 7, Turn 12. Warm air and a hot track simply means that cold tires are less of a problem, and so rider are not crashing more, they are simply crashing in a different place. With nobody crashing at Turn 11, the number of crashers at Turn 1 suddenly seems high. Even though the actual number is pretty much in line with the historical average.
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