‘Fabio is so accurate – that’s his advantage’
Petronas Yamaha’s Johan Stigefelt reveals the secrets of MotoGP leader Fabio Quartararo and discusses the first races of MotoGP’s weirdest season
From Suzuki’s – and Aprilia’s – renaissance, to Márquez’s ‘easy win’; Mat Oxley discusses the talking points from Sepang
Did Valentino Rossi lose the front or the rear when he finally tipped over the abyss at Sepang? From where he was sat, Marc Márquez thought the leader had lost the front – he said that it looked like Rossi had entered the turn fractionally wide and tried to tighten his line mid-corner, so he asked too much of the front and down he went.
However, Rossi said he lost the rear when he first eased open the throttle to help complete the corner.
But if it had been Márquez on the Yamaha, could he have avoided the crash with one of his outlandish saves, using an elbow as an outrigger?
Rossi’s team-mate Maverick Viñales thinks not, because of the difference dynamics of the Honda RC213V and Yamaha YZR-M1.
“With the Yamaha it’s completely impossible to do what Marc does,” said Viñales. “I have tried many times to push and turn the bike like Marc, but if you push the front like that the bike just stands up and you go wide. Even if you tell yourself: okay, I will do this and if I crash, I crash, then you can’t crash! That’s what happened to me in Japan this year. I was in 10th in the first laps, so I said, okay, if I crash, I crash. I started being so aggressive with the front, but the bike just stood up.”
Last weekend was a big one for Márquez, a man who is quite used to big weekends. On Saturday he achieved his 70th pole position across all three classes and on Sunday he won his 80th race victory across all three classes.
He was magical in the rain-affected qualifying session and also a bit naughty. In ever-changing conditions – the track was drying in some places but not in others – he was six tenths of a second faster than closest-challenger Johann Zarco. Then he slid off his number-one with just a few minutes remaining. He got back onboard, returned to the pits, took his number-two bike and although he only had time for one flying lap he set the second best lap of the session!
“The conditions were very sensitive, but this is one of my strong points – adapting to changing conditions,” said Márquez, who does so much motocross and dirt-track training for this reason, because track conditions change every lap in off-road competition.
However, during his second Q2 out-lap he had got in the way of Andrea Iannone, so he was handed a six-place grid penalty, which dropped him from pole to the third row. Many riders would’ve been bitter about the sanction and possibly lost some of their focus. However, Márquez used the penalty as further motivation – he had never won a MotoGP race from the third row.
Some people have suggested Márquez would’ve won the race easily if he had started from pole. Maybe, maybe not.
During the early laps he overheated his tyres as he tried to get the better of Zarco, which forced him to calm down for a while.
“I was pushing my tyres too much, so I overheated them,” he said. “When you overheat the tyres it’s so difficult to get them back to the correct temperature, because you start to spin, then you spin more and more. So I slowed down, then step by step I found my rhythm again.”
But any suggestions that his pursuit of Rossi was too easy are all wrong. Márquez was over the limit even more than usual. Michelin’s Sepang front tyre was its hardest of the season, which narrows the gap between grip and no grip, so he had plenty of close-calls.
“This weekend I saved maybe 10 crashes with my elbow – I’ve never had so many moments,” he said. “I was fighting against myself and fighting against the bike to be as close as possible to Valentino to attack at the end. It was an extra-hard race because I didn’t have a perfect bike, so I was riding on instinct, not using my head. I didn’t have anything more.
“If I had still been racing for the championship I would’ve finished third or fourth, or maybe second, but I didn’t have that pressure, so I was pushing to the limit. This year I’ve saved one crash per race – today I saved three or four.”
And we all know why both Márquez and Rossi wanted so much to win a straight duel to the finish at Sepang.
Suzuki’s GSX-RR keeps getting better. MotoGP’s smallest Japanese manufacturer has scored more podiums than any other factory at the last five races. (Okay, only if we conveniently exclude the otherworldly talent of Marc Márquez that’s put the Honda on the top step at four of those races.)
Alex Rins and Andrea Iannone have each climbed the podium at two of the last five races, bringing Suzuki’s 2018 top-three total to eight, equalling its best-ever MotoGP podium haul from 2007, when Chris Vermeulen and John Hopkins took four podiums each. And Rins rode the fastest lap at Sepang, the first time the GSX-RR has managed that since Viñales won at Silverstone in 2016.
“I’ve felt we’ve had a very competitive bike since the first race and we’ve made a big step since the middle of the season,” said Rins.
“At Assen, Suzuki brought an engine with a little more top power. Since then we’ve improved a lot, so we are able to hold the slipstream of the Yamahas and fight with the Hondas. Also, we have more experience trying to control the tyres and the electronics. We are getting a lot of information for next year and the engine that Sylvain Guintoli used at Motegi looks to be very good on our bad points.”
Márquez is convinced Suzuki will be in the mix next season. “The bike is ready to fight for the championship,” he said. “The bike has fantastic turning and very good traction grip; it just needs a bit more top speed. Our competitors are getting closer and closer, and sometimes they are better than us, so we will need to work very hard for 2019.”
Paddock and pitlane fires are one of the greatest fears in MotoGP. Lives have been lost in the past and at Sepang we were reminded of just how easily things can go wrong.
Alex Rins’ race bike caught fire during a Thursday-afternoon warm-up procedure. The fire didn’t turn into a complete disaster for two reasons: the Suzuki mechanics were very quick with their fire extinguishers and the bike wasn’t inside the garage, but outside on pitlane.
There are already rules in place to ensure fuel safety. Teams keep their fuel supplies at the back of their garages, where fuel tanks must be filled via sealed refuelling units, with all the equipment based on anti-static mats. Rules are strictest at Phillip Island, where local laws allow teams to keep only 50 litres of fuel per rider in their garages.
There may be a positive outcome to Rins’ GSX-RR bursting into flames. Fire precautions could be tightened to ban teams from running engines in their garages.
Maverick Viñales didn’t win again at Sepang, but he would’ve been a lot closer if he hasn’t had a huge highside in FP4, when he was caught out by a cloudburst. The crash destroyed one of his bikes and he struggled to get back in the groove for Q2, ending up on the fourth row of the grid.
The 23-year-old Spaniard had been fastest in the first three practice sessions, so he obviously had the speed to win the race, or at least fight for the win. In other words, his Phillip Island success wasn’t purely a one-off fusion of bike, rider and racetrack.
So what has changed for Viñales? After September’s Aragon GP, where he qualified 14th and finished 10th, he completely transformed the set-up of his YZR-M1.
“After Aragon I decided to go with my riding style completely: if I’m not fast, then I’m not fast, but I will do what I want to do,” he said at Sepang. “It’s difficult to explain but we put much more weight on the rear – I just moved everything to the rear.”
And this wasn’t in the search of more corner-exit traction. It was for better braking performance, to allow Viñales to enter corners at a better speed. “Now I use the rear to stop the bike and that’s something important,” he added.
Riders in the Michelin era cannot rely entirely on the front tyre to stop the bike, which they did in the Bridgestone era. This is why you see rear wheels in the air less often now, because riders are using the rear to help stop the bike. Most riders lock the front tyre when they’re hard on the brakes, even at 200mph, then modulate lever pressure all the way to the corner, keeping the front tyre on the brink of locking, while also using the rear brake and rear tyre to slow down.
But surely shifting machine balance backwards will make the bike turn less effectively, because there’s less load on the front tyre when the rider tips into the corner? Not so, says Viñales.
“If you can stop the bike, then you can turn, but if you can’t stop the bike, you can’t turn,” he added. “With this new setting I can stop the bike in a much shorter distance. Before it always took me longer to stop the bike, so I always missed the corner. Until I found this set-up I couldn’t use my own riding style, but now I have the confidence, so I can be more aggressive on the bike.”
The only time since Thailand that he hasn’t used this new set-up was at Motegi, where he struggled to seventh. At the other three races he has been able to use his natural riding technique, scoring a win, a third and a fourth, at Sepang, where he was 10th at the end of the first lap.
So how come it’s taken him this long to ride at his best once again?
“At the beginning of the season I tried to do it, but the bike wasn’t ready. So then I started changing my riding style a lot, being very smooth, but then I got into a trouble with the front tyre, because I wasn’t warming it up enough.”
Thus his appalling starts earlier in the year weren’t purely down to set-up, they were also down to riding style.
Dovizioso turned his season around at Brno in August, when he got better aerodynamics and perfected his GP18’s set-up. Since then he’s been victorious, on the podium, or fighting for the win at every race.
Until Sepang, where he finished a distant sixth, more than half a second off the winning pace.
However, Dovizioso didn’t consider the result as a negative. Ever since his grim early season put him out of the title fight he’s had two main goals: to win a few races and even more importantly to keep developing the Desmosedici so he can have a real go at winning the 2019 championship.
“I’m really happy to make this kind of race because it can show our limit and it’s very important to know this before the winter,” said the Italian, who won the 2016 and 2017 Malaysian MotoGP races, on a wet track. “We’ve never had a good race here in the dry, so I think that’s for a technical reason. But today the difference from practice was too big. I couldn’t brake because the front didn’t work in the right way – the tyre was locking a lot. Now we have to study what happened to understand if something was wrong or if it was just our situation at this track.”
Both Moto2 and Moto3 world championships were wrapped up at Sepang, by two names which you will hear increasingly often over the next few seasons.
Franco ‘Pecco’ Bagnaia put the last Honda-powered Moto2 title out of Miguel Oliveira’s reach to win a significant first world title for Valentino Rossi’s Sky VR46 team. “This is an unforgettable day for us,” said Rossi.
Bagnaia was born in Turin to a bike-mad dad who got his kicks doing track days. The 21-year-old now lives in Pesaro, close to VR46 HQ, so he spends most of his life riding with and hanging out with other VR46 riders.
“We’re together all the time, training and racing at the ranch, which is very important because every day we are in competition,” he said. “We are friends, but at the track we want to beat everyone else in the group. Our motivation is to be strong all the time. Then we all go out to dinner together, where we speak about motorbikes and girlfriends.”
Rossi isn’t a constant presence in their lives, but he has a huge impact on their careers, as a coach and as the man who made the VR46 Academy and Sky VR46 team possible.
“Having a coach like Valentino is incredible,” added Bagnaia. “He has done everything in his career and he has made mistakes, so he knows what to do and he tells us how to change, although he’s more like a friend helping you than a mentor. So it’s a faster learning process. At the European races we got to his motorhome in the evening to speak about the day. His first job is his own career, so Uccio [Salucci] and Max [Montanari], stay more with us.”
So who is fastest around the VR46 dirt track course?
“I’m first of the middle group,” grins Bagnaia, who won eight Moto2 races to take the 2018 title. “Dirt track is very important for preparation because you need to stay very focused because you lose grip and you have to manage that. I don’t crash too much, not once this year, but some of the others crash twice a day! The fastest are Vale, [Luca] Marini, [Franco] Morbidelli and [Mattia] Pasini.”
Jorge Martin’s Moto3 title-winning ride at Sepang was something else. The 20-year-old from Madrid, Spain, started from pole position but went backwards to tenth in the early laps, wary of a few damp patches around the track. But he was merely biding his time. When he took the lead in the closing stages he raced away from the pack, building a 3.1-second lead in four laps, which shouldn’t really be possible in Moto3, where all bikes are so similar in performance.
Martin has started 11 Moto3 races from pole and has taken seven wins so far. Next year he becomes part of the Red Bull KTM talent factory, riding for Aki Ajo’s Moto2 team. Meanwhile, Bagnaia graduates to MotoGP after the Valencia season finale, riding alongside Jack Miller at Pramac Ducati.
Expect to see Martin in MotoGP with KTM in 2021 or 2022.
Yamaha isn’t the only factory that’s suddenly got better at recent races. Aprilia had a disastrous 2018 until the factory produced some new parts and dug out some old parts during the three flyaway races.
Aleix Espargaro’s latest RS-GP has a new frame, essentially a 2019 prototype, and an old seat and subframe, taken from the 2017 bike.
“We have changed the stiffness at the front of the frame and also the seat/ subframe stiffness,” said Aprilia racing manager Romano Albesiano. “This gives Aleix more feeling and the bike feels more alive. Also, we have more rear grip and the bike turns better when he comes off the brakes.”
Espargaro came through from 17th to finish 11th at Sepang. The previous Sunday at Phillip Island he crossed the line in ninth place, only his fourth top-10 finish all year.
Read more: Márquez’s winning secret
Petronas Yamaha’s Johan Stigefelt reveals the secrets of MotoGP leader Fabio Quartararo and discusses the first races of MotoGP’s weirdest season
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