One of Suzuki’s main targets for its 2021 MotoGP title defence is to do better during qualifying – and it’s not hard to see why.
Joan Mir won last year’s world championship despite being the only rider of the MotoGP era (2002 onwards) not to start from pole position at least once during his title-winning campaign.
Indeed, Mir didn’t even qualify on the front row.
Best, worst and average start
Mir’s flying-lap Saturday form swung between a best of fourth place* and low of 20th, with an average equating to just tenth on the grid.
To put that into perspective, the average qualifying position by a world champion during MotoGP’s 18 previous seasons was third, meaning they were usually on the front row.
The champion closest to Mir’s lowly qualifying, but still significantly better, is Nicky Hayden in 2006. The American took one pole from 17 races for Repsol Honda and a qualifying average of fifth. Next is Valentino Rossi in 2008, who only took two poles and an average of fourth.
Mir, Hayden and Rossi in 2008 aside, all other MotoGP champions started from pole position at least five times during their title seasons. The normal (pre-Mir) pole ratio for a MotoGP world champion was once in every 2-3 rounds.
The highest qualifying average during the MotoGP era is by Casey Stoner in 2011. The Australian took 12 pole positions from 17 races for Repsol Honda, qualifying off the front row just once, in fourth.
Jorge Lorenzo also missed the front row once on his way to the 2010 title for Yamaha, and also had a worst of fourth place, but only took seven pole positions.
As such, it is Marc Marquez who has the next highest average after Stoner courtesy of a record 13 poles from 18 races (and worst qualifying of fifth) during 2014.
Mir was able to win Suzuki’s first MotoGP title by recovering an average of six positions per race compared to his qualifying position.
No other previous champion comes close.
Rossi in 2005 and 2008 improved by an average of two positions, but most MotoGP title winners finish roughly where they have qualified. Marquez in 2016 was unusual for a champion in that he was classified, on average, slightly lower than he had qualified.
Although Mir’s points-per-race average over the 14 rounds was the smallest of the MotoGP era at 12.2, it wasn’t too far from Hayden’s 14.8 in 2006. Two of Marquez’s titles were won with an average of 16.6 points-per-race.
The highest points-per-race average for a MotoGP champion is 22.3 by Rossi in 2003, his final season at Honda.
MotoGP introduced a single tyre supplier from the 2009 season and a knock-out style qualifying system from 2013, where the top 10 riders after free practice, plus the top two in Qualifying 1, fight for pole position in Qualifying 2.
However, neither of these changes seems to have shaken-up the qualifying performances for the world championship winner. If anything, the average starting position had got higher, at least until Mir.
Suzuki: ‘We try to solve the problem from many directions’
“The one thing we have to improve [for 2021] is qualifying, but the priority is always the race result not qualifying!” Suzuki MotoGP project manager Shinichi Sahara said last week.
“But also for the race result we need to be starting on the front or second row of the grid, so we still keep continuing our development to make better qualifying lap times.
“For example, adjustment of the chassis rigidity to have more front feeling for instance. We try to solve the problem from many directions.
“We always have the priority to keep the balance of the bike so we don’t concentrate just on chassis or just on engine development. We are trying to improve all this package.”
* which became third on the grid due to Johann Zarco‘s pitlane start penalty.