MotoGP’s latest rookie revelation talks about controlling wheelspin with his right wrist, saving front-end slides and how his doldrum years made him a better rider
Quartararo leads a MotoGP race for the first time, at AssenPhoto: PETRONAS Yamaha SRT
Why do you think you’ve had more immediate success in MotoGP than you had in Moto2 and Moto3?
I think that to be fast in this category you don’t only need a good bike. You need a good bike and good people around you: good mechanics, a good crew chief, everyone must be a family. Also the Yamaha suits my riding style – it’s the bike that needs to be ridden really smoothly. I remember Jorge Lorenzo rode the Yamaha really smoothly and that’s why he won a lot of races. I think I’m quite a smooth rider, that’s why it’s all going well.
When you came into Moto3 in 2015 some people said you were the next Marc Márquez, but then you had some difficult times. Looking back, do you have any idea what went wrong?
Yes, now I have a clearer idea of what I’m doing. When people compared me to Márquez I was only 16. I think the pressure got too much, it was too stressful. Then I broke an ankle and missed six races, then the next year I was with Leopard and had a really tough season. Those tough years gave me a lot of experience – they were really bad for results, but so good for my experience. Every good moment I had when I was at Leopard was a big success, because 95 per cent of that time was negative. This has taught me that you can also learn from negative moments and take small positives from them. This year the whole the team is really happy. I’m enjoying myself a lot and they’re enjoying themselves a lot – it’s good to have a good atmosphere in the box.
When did you first feel really comfortable on the M1, because the track is always cold at the first tests at Valencia?
At the Sepang tests [in February] I started to feel a little better, the bike started to feel more like my bike. Then as soon as we arrived for the tests in Qatar we made a big step on the first day, which gave me a lot of confidence to ride the bike at the limit. We finished those three days second overall. That’s where we really started to feel the good potential of the Yamaha and my potential on a MotoGP bike.
What was the big step?
The braking points. At Sepang the braking points were really bad for me. During the last few hours of that test I was thinking only about braking every time I exited from the box, but we didn’t improve. Suddenly in Qatar, without even thinking about the braking points, we improved. For me, that was the biggest step we’ve made this year.
Your riding technique is smooth, so where do you make time?
I think I’m quite good with corner speed. I’ve heard a lot about this from several top riders in MotoGP. During the Sepang tests Marc told me that when he came to MotoGP from Moto2 his corner speed was so fast, but step by step he lost that, to gain something in other areas. So this year I’m really fast on corner speed and I hope to improve other aspects of my riding without losing that corner speed.
When you look at data, comparing yours with Franco Morbidelli’s, Maverick Viñales’ and Valentino Rossi’s, what do you see?
It depends on the track. At some tracks I need to improve the way I go into the corners, the way I manage the gas and the way I manage wheelies. I still have many things to learn with this bike! For example when I see Valentino’s and Maverick’s data I can see the experience they have in controlling the throttle, so I still have to learn these things from them.
Who were your heroes when you were young?
Obviously he can look at your data too, so that must feel pretty crazy, having Rossi looking at your data, trying to go faster?
Exactly! I was really fast at Mugello, so for sure he checked my data there. For me, it’s quite strange… no, it’s really strange, because if I think ten years back I was waiting for him outside his hospitality to have my photograph taken with him. And now he looks at how I’m doing my lap times!
No one likes talking about crashing, so I’ll touch wood while I ask you this question. Not only is your speed impressive, the fact that you haven’t crashed while going so fast is even more remarkable. Even the fastest guys are crashing bikes and you’re a rookie, you’re as fast as them and you’ve not crashed. How can be this be? [We did this interview on Thursday afternoon at Barcelona – Quartararo had his first MotoGP crash on Saturday morning.]
I think we’ve done really well with the team. At the Valencia tests they said let’s start step by step. I didn’t want to go fast immediately – the only goal was to arrive at the first race in Qatar well prepared. So we had tests at Valencia, Jerez, Sepang and Losail; ten days all. During these ten days the plan was to go faster, step by step. At Sepang it was difficult for me to see [fellow rookie Pecco] Bagnaia going one second faster than me. But it was okay. I thought, if he can do it, I can do it, but going step by step is the best strategy.
Photo: PETRONAS Yamaha SRT
That’s always so tough for rookies – no racer wants to wait to be fast! – so you must have good self-control.
Exactly. I learned that last year – stay calm and don’t make stupid mistakes. Also, on a MotoGP bike you need to think more than when you’re riding a Moto2 bike. In Moto2, you create a good bike set-up and you do the full race at full gas, trying to control the tyres. In MotoGP you need to control the tyres, you need to think about the fuel tank, when it’s full and when it’s nearly empty, you need to think about the three power maps and you need to think about the three engine-braking maps. So you need to think a lot when you’re on the bike and I think this helps me stay calm when I’m in the box.
Do you enjoy thinking more about racing?
Yes, for me it’s good to think. Of course, you mustn’t think too much. You must focus on your riding, but as soon as you feel you should change the power map or engine-braking maps you must change them.
How often do you change the maps during a race?
Two or three times.
And which map do you change the most: the power and traction control map or the engine-brake map?
It depends on the track. When you’re at a track where the grip is really low you use the power map much more, but that also depends on which rear tyre you chose for the race. I’d say I normally change the power map once or twice and the same for the engine-brake map.
Usually less power and less engine-braking as grip reduces during a race?
The spec traction control isn’t as good as the old factory TC, so do you prefer to use your right wrist to control wheelspin?
It’s not so much the TC as the power map – it’s just changing that map to give less power to the tyre. But yes, I try to control wheelspin more by myself because I think this is the best way to work. At the start of the year I was happy to exit corners at full gas, but for sure if you only use 80 per cent gas you will exit faster because instead of spinning the tyre you build speed. When you spin at full gas you burn the tyre and you don’t go forward.
So far you’ve had your greatest successes in qualifying – is this because it’s easier for you to do one fast lap than a full race, when you have to look after the tyres and so on?
Yes, but in general my only real problem in races has been my starts, apart from Jerez [when he ran third for the first ten laps]. At Le Mans I made a big mistake, so I was 17th after four laps and finished eighth, so I overtook a lot of people. At Mugello I had some issues with tyres and arm-pump. So since Jerez we have been really moving forward – but we need to keep working on race distance.
What kind of tracks do you prefer: fast and flowing or stop and go?
We’ve proved we are fast on both. I was fast at Mugello and I was fast at Le Mans. I like all the tracks, but most of all I like the bigger tracks, especially with a MotoGP bike.
I suppose Mugello must’ve been the biggest thrill so far?
Yes, exactly. I’ve never enjoyed riding a motorcycle as much as I enjoyed riding a MotoGP bike at Mugello. The adrenaline is incredible when you ride through the kink into the first corner and when you’re riding uphill through Arrabiatta one and two, where the bike is pushing so much. Really nice!
The Michelin front tyre is quite tricky to use, so how do you manage with that?
I think I have a good feeling with the bike – when the front tucks I release the brake a little bit. It’s difficult to manage because you lose the front in less than a tenth of a second, so you really need to be very focused on what you’re doing and have good control of the bike. If you don’t have that feeling with the front of the bike then it’s easy to crash because the front goes really fast.
Photo: PETRONAS Yamaha SRT
Is Wilco [Zeelenberg, Petronas Yamaha SRT team-manager) a big help in all of this, because he knows the Yamaha really well and he knew Jorge’s riding technique really well? Also, he’s not a pushy boss…
Yes, Wilco is really good, because I’ve had some bad experiences with team people who really push you for results – you must get a result! This makes me stressed and then I don’t ride smoothly. It’s not only Wilco, it’s the whole team. We all work hard during the weekend and when we get to the race they say: do your best. When people don’t put pressure on me I can go much, much faster
How you train – dirt bike, minibikes?
I sometimes ride RMU MiniGP bikes [also used by the VR46 Academy, but I do more motocross than anything.
If I feel good to make a jump then I do the jump. But if I have to myself if I can make the jump or not then I don’t jump. I don’t want to have a stupid crash and injure myself. I live in Andorra, so I train a lot in Spain with Jack [Miller] and John [McPhee]. It’s good experience to have several top riders fighting on the same bikes.
What’s your current contract: two years or one plus one?
Contract details aren’t my job! I’m really happy with my team and the package we have! [laughs]
This is the correct business answer – you’re still using your brain!
Next year I will be here for sure…
But you must already be getting calls about beyond 2020?
Like I said, it’s not my job. But it’s better to be receiving calls than making calls to find a bike!