German MotoGP: ‘Fabio is more of an animal’

MotoGP

Fabio Quartararo stormed to victory in red-hot Sachsenring, proving he’s getting faster and faster, while pole-man Pecco Bagnaia had another crash and Honda had its worst MotoGP weekend in four decades

Fabio Quartararo leads Pecco Bagnaia in the 2022 MotoGP German GP

Winner Quartararo leads Bagnaia in the early laps – Bagnaia is about to see his championship hopes all but disappear

Yamaha

Sometimes you can do no wrong. Other times you can do nothing right

This is how it is for two of MotoGP’s championship favourites – Fabio Quartararo and Pecco Bagnaia – as the 2022 season reached its halfway point in Germany on Sunday.

While Quartararo has scored points in all ten races so far, winning three, Bagnaia has crashed out of four and won just two.

At Sachsenring the Italian qualified on pole position for the third time in the last five races but lasted only three laps and one corner before he crashed out, while chasing leader Quartararo. And surely that was that has ended any realistic hope of the Italian youngster lifting this year’s MotoGP crown.

“I cannot explain the crash…looking at the data it’s impossible to understand”

So, what went wrong this time?

Quartararo was the only top rider to race Michelin’s medium rear slick, whereas Bagnaia and all the other victory hopefuls chose the hard, because Sachsenring kills the left side of the rear tyre on a normal day. And Sunday was anything but normal, with the asphalt sizzling at over 50 degrees Celsius, so a harder compound made a lot of sense.

However, the Dunlop-equipped Moto2 race had scrubbed the track clean of all the Michelin rubber laid down over the previous two days. After the MotoGP race most riders commented on the lack of grip in the early stages, before they’d laid down more of their own rubber.

That was one factor in Bagnaia’s downfall and possibly the most significant.

The others? Pushing hard to keep on-form Quartararo in sight and the super-tricky nature of Turn 1: braking from around 190mph to pretty much nothing, over a brow of a hill and into a steeply negative-camber corner. Or maybe three laps behind Quartararo in the searing heat had ballooned his front tyre?

Pecco Bagnaia crashes out of the 2022 MotoGP German GP

Bagnaia goes down at Turn 1 on lap four, promoting Johann Zarco to second

Ducati

Whatever, Bagnaia was at a loss to explain what had happened.

“I’m trying to repeat in my mind what happened and I cannot explain the crash,” he said. “For sure if I crashed it’s because I made a mistake but looking at the data it’s impossible to understand.

“I did more than 70 laps a day in practice and in none of those laps did I feel anything like this. Never in my life have I crashed like this [losing the rear mid-corner], only at the ranch. My lean angle was the same as usual and my speed was the same.

“Maybe all the bikes are now living in a very narrow margin and if you go outside that margin you crash…”

Certainly it makes sense that when all the riders are separated by smaller and smaller margins, the motorcycles will become more and more finely focused to extract that last fraction of performance.

And perhaps it’s that laser-focused performance that has transformed Yamaha’s YZR-M1 into a one-rider machine, just like Honda’s RC213V, which won six titles in seven years in the hands of Marc Márquez.

Reigning world champion, current points leader and Sachsenring winner Quartararo danced on the edge of his M1’s tyres throughout Sunday’s race, using his usual super-physical and very proactive riding technique, the kind of style that made the Márquez/RC213V combination so unbeatable.

“This Yamaha requires an aggressive riding style, not so gentle,” said Quartararo’s team-mate Franky Morbidelli, who finished 13th at Sachsenring lapping a second a lap slower than the race winner. “With new tyres especially Fabio is more of an animal.”

Thus Quartararo continues his reign as the so-called ‘blue Márquez’, extracting performance from a motorcycle that its other three riders can’t even begin to find.

Fabio Quartararo kisses the rear Michelin tyre on his Yamaha at the 2022 MotoGP German GP

Quartararo kisses the left side of his Michelin rear – his unusual medium choice was crucial

Yamaha

Quartararo was expected to struggle at the two races before Sachsenring – the M1’s lack of power supposedly too much of a handicap on the long, long main straights at Mugello and Barcelona – but his last three results are a second and two victories.

The 23-year-old Frenchman can make the difference at fast tracks in the same way that 2020 MotoGP king Joan Mir made the difference two years ago. He enters corners with devastating speed, dances on the edge of the tyres, using them to turn the bike, and commences the corner exit phase with more speed. So even if he lacks pure horsepower he launches onto the straight with more speed than the riders of faster bikes and he carries that extra speed all the way down the straight.

“The difference is that Fabio brakes very well and then releases the brake to have much more speed in the middle of the corner,” says Andrea Dovizioso, who rode his 2022 RNF M1 to 14th on Sunday, just behind Morbidelli. “So in the first part of acceleration he’s able to be faster and have some extra kays [kmh/mph], so even though he has the same grip as us he accelerates more.

“That’s why when you see him battle with other riders and bikes that have more grip it looks like he has more grip. But he doesn’t. It’s just that the bike turns well, so he’s able to be in advance compared to the other riders and start accelerating earlier. For sure, if you see them all accelerate from the same point in a corner the others will accelerate faster.”

This is one reason why Quartararo is so obsessed with being first into Turn 1. And if anyone comes past him he counter-attacks immediately, which is exactly what he did to Bagnaia on Sunday.

Fabio Quartararo stands on his Yamaha with arms outstretched in his pit garage with crew

Quartararo loves what he does and knows how to build a good rapport with his team

Yamaha

Bagnaia got just one sniff of the lead, when he out-braked Quartararo at Turn 1 on lap two, but the moment he got in front, the Frenchman found the tiniest of gaps to retake the lead.

“We absolutely need to be first, always,” said Quartararo. “Otherwise we struggle to overtake.” And his front-tyre pressure will get too high, as it did last month at Jerez, where every time he got close to winner Bagnaia his front tyre ballooned and he couldn’t attack.

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This time he was a bit more worried about his rear tyre – choosing the medium instead of the hard – but not for too long. “At first I was little bit scared because I was using more of the rear tyre than I expected to ride fast,” he said.

Once again Quartararo’s crew chief Diego Gubellini had made the right call on tyre choice and his rider was utterly perfect, the blue Márquez taking over from the orange Márquez as king of the ’Ring. Quartararo is currently riding the crest of a wave, building confidence each weekend and still improving as a rider in his fourth season in the class of kings. I think we have yet to see his best, which is ominous for the rest.

Now, with ten of 20 races done Quartararo has a 34-point lead over Aleix Espargaró, who on Sunday lost third place to Bagnaia’s team-mate Jack Miller, after a long tussle.

The weather at Sachsenring was vicious, more like the Suzuka 8 Hours than a German GP. The burning heat, at the centre of a European heatwave, destroyed all the riders physically and mentally, so I think Miller spoke for everyone when he said to second-placed Johann Zarco, “You look in a bad way, mate,” before they climbed the podium.

Johann Zarco cornering at Sachsenring

MotoGP’s unsung hero Zarco is now third overall and top Ducati

Dorna

Although Yamaha’s M1 isn’t the neutral, rider-friendly machine it once was, perhaps it is more rider-friendly than Ducati’s Desmosedici, never mind the amazing work done by Ducati engineers in recent years. At the end of Saturday qualifying there were six Ducatis in the top eight, but one fast lap doesn’t make a race.

Zarco, MotoGP’s unsung hero, now third in the championship and top Ducati, agrees that the Desmosedici isn’t an easy ride.

“I can be fast on the Ducati but not super-relaxed and enjoying every moment, I am fighting on the bike,” said the Frenchman. “I am fast enough but if I can make the bike easier it will be much better for all the races.”

“I just waited until they struggled with the rear… I tried to be smart and clever”

Fourth-placed Espargaró was convinced he had a faulty front tyre, otherwise he was sure he could’ve gone with Zarco. At the finish he was just over two seconds clear of Luca Marini, having by far his best race in MotoGP.

While his big brother finished 16th in the GT World Challenge car race at Zandvoort in the Netherlands, Marini had the pace for his first MotoGP podium, but a third-row start held him back in the early stages.

“At the beginning of the season we had a new team, a new crew and a new bike, so we struggled,” explained the VR46 Ducati rider. “But now we have a good base setting, my confidence is better at every race and today was the first time I had the potential to make the podium.

“After the start it’s impossible to overtake here, so I was managing the rear tyre but the others didn’t think about this, so they were exiting corners with a lot of gas, a lot of slides, so I just waited until they struggled with the rear… I tried to be smart and clever.

This is the Marini way: lots of thinking and steady forward progress, rather than big handfuls of throttle and throwing his motorcycle at the scenery. Expect the forward progress to continue.

Luca Marini in his MotoGP pit garage

Marini is a thinker – he only goes fast when he’s ready and he seems ready now

VR46

However, no one in MotoGP needs forward progress right now like Honda. The company didn’t score a single championship point on Sunday, the first time that’s happened since the days of the oval-piston NR500 four-stroke in late 1981, when Honda was fighting a Quixotic battle with the all-powerful two-strokes.

The following year Honda realised that if it couldn’t beat them it must join them, so it built the NS500 two-stroke triple, which won Honda’s first premier-class championship in 1983.

Honda has had dark days in MotoGP before, with its ‘upside-down’ (fuel tank under the engine, exhausts over the top] NSR500 in 1984, but then it had the NS500 to fall back on. In 1985 it built a more conventional NSR500, which went on to become the most successful motorcycle in history.

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The early days of 800cc MotoGP were also grim – just four GP wins in 2007 and 2008 – until the RC212V was finally sorted.

But Honda and HRC have never been through such a horrible period as now, which started when their six-timee MotoGP king Márquez broke his right upper arm at the star of 2020. That coincided with the introduction of Michelin’s grippier, softer-casing rear slick, with befuddled several factories and riders, most notably Valentino Rossi and Dovizioso.

Therefore Honda undertook the biggest redesign of its MotoGP bike in more than a decade for 2022, moving focus from the front to the rear, to maximise the grippier rear slick.

Pol Espargaró led the season-opening Qatar GP and finished a close third, so the signs were promising. But since the situation has become somewhat confused. The engineers have once again lost their number-one rider and the other riders are struggling to find any kind of balance from the latest RC213V – it seems they can have front grip or rear grip but not both at the same time.

Stefan Bradl of Honda in the 2022 MotoGP German GP

HRC test rider Stefan Bradl on his way to finishing top Honda and last

Honda

On Saturday afternoon Takaaki Nakagami was Honda’s top qualifier in tenth. The race was something else.

Alex Márquez withdrew with a shapeshifter malfunction, which is also what did for Aprilia’s Maverick Viñales, having his best ride so far on the RS-GP (after switching from a hard to a medium rear on the grid).

Espargaró withdrew in agony, struggling to breathe, due to the ribs he damaged in a huge corner-entry highside on Friday.

And Márquez’s substitute, HRC test rider Stefan Bradl, finished 16th and last. Like everyone else the German suffered in the gruelling heat, sustaining burns to parts of his body. This isn’t unusual in super-hot races, like the Suzuka 8 Hours, in which the motorcycle becomes so hot it burns you.

After next weekend’s Assen race Honda engineers have five weeks in which to work on different solutions before MotoGP’s mid-season break ends with the British GP in early August.

But there’s a problem. You might argue that the days of building a very different MotoGP bike are over, because testing is now drastically limited (to allow more races), which makes it very, very difficult to develop a new machine. The next MotoGP test with MotoGP riders is scheduled for early September, after the San Marino GP. And it’s the usual one-day test and you have time to try too many radical experiments in those few hours.

Not only that, any performance deficiencies are now amplified by the tightness of the competition in MotoGP. Nakagami’s best qualifying lap at Sachsenring was six tenths off Bagnaia’s pole position. A decade or so ago that would’ve had him on the first or second rows.

But these are the problems that everyone faces, so Honda has to get its head around what needs to be done to the RC213V. you can be sure that there will be no holidays at HRC’s Asaka HQ during MotoGP’s summer break.