The biggest talking points from the 2019 Qatar Grand Prix that featured the closest top-15 in MotoGP history
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The main takeaway from the first race of the season is simple: basically nothing has changed since last year, which is a good thing, if you like close, unpredictable racing.
Andrea Dovizioso and Marc Márquez are the cleverest of the fastest riders, the Ducati and Honda are the best bikes and the Suzuki is better than the Yamaha, as it was through much of last season.
The racing was as extremely close as it nearly always is at Losail: Dovizioso’s winning margin over Márquez was 0.023 seconds. Last year the gap between the two was 0.027sec. It’s that kind of circuit: fast, flowing corners and a long straight that’s made for drafting.
No doubt that Cal Crutchlow was the hero of the night. The Qatar Grand Prix was his ninth day of a riding a motorcycle in the 143 days since he went down at 130mph during practice for October’s Australian GP, breaking his right ankle so badly that the injury required two immediate operations and an external fixator. Crutchlow now has only 70 per cent movement in the ankle, which causes him major problems in right-handers.
2019 MotoGP Qatar Grand Prix results
“At the moment I’ve got as much movement as I can get,” he said. “At the start of January I had 20 per cent movement and now I’ve got 70 per cent, which isn’t enough on the bike. The ankle doesn’t hurt, I just can’t bend it enough. Even on the straights, trying to come off the rear brake and put my foot back on the footpeg is a massive effort.
“I physically have to lift my leg up and then put it back. It’s quite difficult to do and with how much I use the brake in the middle of corners, I’m really struggling in right-handers to get off the brake.”
Crutchlow has tried a hand-operated rear brake, as pioneered by Mick Doohan, who had his right ankle fully fused after breaking his leg in 1992, but the Briton can’t make it work.
“I just don’t like it. For 15 years I’ve braked with my right foot. And things are so close in MotoGP that if I use a thumb brake I lose a second a lap because I’m thinking about it, because it’s not natural. When I do use it I use that much pressure with the thumb that I lock the rear wheel and I’m out of control. Now with my ankle I sometimes can’t get off the brake in right-handers and I almost highside off throttle.”
But did Dovizioso really win?
Dovizioso’s victory was his 13th MotoGP success, a number that may or may not prove significant. During the race, four rival factories lodged a protest with the FIM MotoGP Stewards Panel, now chaired by three-time world champion Freddie Spencer, against “aerodynamic devices on the rear swingarm of Ducati machinery”, as used by GP19 riders Dovizioso, Danilo Petrucci and Jack Miller.
Aprilia, Honda, KTM and Suzuki were the protesters. Only Yamaha deferred, because it uses a not-dissimilar swingarm attachment to clear water from the rear tyre during rain-affected outings.
The protest was thrown out. MotoGP technical director Danny Aldridge had submitted a document to teams the previous weekend, giving his blessing to the latest developments by various factories, but apparently there’s still some confusion.
Who knows why the four factories went ahead with the protest? But this wasn’t the first time factory staff had visited the stewards during the weekend. After Saturday’s qualifying session, Ducati team management complained that Márquez had used a tow from Petrucci to make the front row. The stewards confirmed there are no regulations prohibiting such tactics – taking a tow has been a part of racing for as long as anyone can remember.
The real question, of course, is what is the purpose of Ducati’s swingarm device? Is it an aerodynamic device and therefore governed by aerodynamic regulations. Or is it a tyre-cooling device, or perhaps something else?
The slotted scoop first appeared at the opening 2019 tests at Sepang, in basic 3D-printed form. At Losail all three GP19s had carbon-fibre versions, which catch air flowing under the belly of the fairing and deflect it upwards, towards the rear tyre, which presumably answers any questions about its design objective, either cooling the tyre, or providing downforce, or perhaps a bit of both. Dovizioso ran without the attachment for most of the weekend, which suggests that the data gathered by Petrucci’s and Miller’s bikes convinced the Italian and his crew that he needed it for the race.
Dovizioso declined to comment about the protest but his Mission Winnow team-mate Petrucci had this to say. “For sure in the paddock there is always a voice that says Ducati overtake the limit of the rules. But for sure we read and respect the rules and then many other teams copy our solutions, from the winglets to the salad box, everything. They try to stop us and when they can’t they copy.”
The important thing to remember about Gigi Dall’Igna’s array of gadgets is that most of them are designed to dance around MotoGP’s biggest-ever rules rewrite in 2016: unified electronics and Michelin tyres.
The winglets and the holeshot device (used by Miller since late last season and by all three GP19s on Sunday) are only necessary because the anti-wheelie programme in the unified software is so ineffective. When Dorna sat down with Magneti Marelli to create MotoGP’s first spec-software they had a straightforward plan – to transform electronic rider controls from performance aids to safety aids.
Traction control and engine-braking control are considered to be primarily safety aids, because MotoGP doesn’t want riders getting spat to the moon when they get too crossed up into corners or out of corners. Current TC and engine-braking controls are much less trick than the pre-2016 tailormade factory kit, but they still do the job.
However, wheelies aren’t usually a safety issue. Thus the current anti-wheelie control is very weak – it’s almost impossible to provide a reasonable level of wheelie control without severely reducing torque and therefore corner-exit speed. This is all good, because now the riders have to do the work. And the engineers.
Dall’Igna’s radical aerodynamic winglets were designed primarily to reduce wheelies by mechanical means instead of electronic means, allowing the engine to deliver more torque to the rear tyre for faster acceleration.
The holeshot device is the same – it reduces the tendency for wheelies away from the grid – which again allows the engine to deliver more torque to the rear tyre, which no doubt helped Dovizioso get the holeshot on Sunday.
The swingarm attachment comes from the same mentality, to make the best of the 2016 regulations. The Michelins are the opposite of the Bridgestones. Whereas the Bridgestone front was better than the rear, the Michelin rear is better than the front, so riders use a lot of rear brake to stop the bike and they use the rear to turn the bike. Thus more rear downforce would help in various situations. Tyre cooling would also help, because maintaining a reasonable level of tyre temperature with the Michelins is vital to improve performance over race distance. During much of the past two seasons Dovizioso has been the master of managing tyre temperature and tyre life, but if Dall’Igna can help him eke a little more grip out of the rear tyre, then that can only be a good thing. No doubt, the difference is tiny, but when races are won by hundredths of a second, then tiny can be big.
Sunday’s protest was dismissed, but the four factories involved have appealed against the decision. The appeal will be heard by MotoGP’s court of appeal in due course; hopefully before round two in Argentina at the end of this month.
Obviously, MotoGP doesn’t want an excess of downforce devices. Front downforce from wing-type devices increases safety because MotoGP bikes can lift the front wheel in fifth and sixth gears, so the front tyre needs to be pushed into the road at high speeds to avoid the tyre locking when riders hit the brakes. But rear aero doesn’t offer a safety advantage.
Márquez said after the race that he was happy with second and doesn’t want to be awarded victory off the track. Let’s hope this isn’t the start of a new era in MotoGP, when lawyers and rulebooks make the headlines, instead of the motorcycles and their riders.
The closest-ever top 15 – why?
Sunday’s race was historic – the closest top 15 in 71 seasons of 500cc and MotoGP racing. Just 15.093sec separated winner Dovizioso from last points-scorer Johann Zarco, which bettered the previous record of 16.043sec at Assen last year.
Fifteen seconds covering 15 riders would have been a big deal in 125cc racing two decades ago but in fact it’s no great surprise now in MotoGP. Grand Prix racing is in its eighth decade now. At first great mountains were climbed, with performance increasing rapidly as engine designers learned about engines and chassis engineers learned about chassis.
MotoGP now finds itself on a high plateau, where everyone knows pretty much everything about getting a motorcycle around a racetrack and the landscape has been further flatted by rule-makers anxious to keep everyone at the same level.
Let’s take a quick look at the top 10 time gaps at Losail, since the first Qatar Grand Prix in 2004.
||Gap from 1st to 10th
Notice how the gap has shrunk over the past three years. The 2016 Qatar GP was the first race of the unified software/Michelin era, so everyone was only just getting to grips with the new demands on bikes and riders. In 2017, 2018 and 2019 the gap shrunk considerably. Sunday’s top 10 was the second closest in history, just behind last August’s Czech GP, where the tenth finisher crossed the line 8.3sec behind the winner.
Two reasons for this: simpler electronics, which don’t allow the richer factories to run away with hugely complex fuel-saving and tyre-saving strategies and the Michelins.
The Michelins are friendly tyres that pretty much everyone can use to the maximum. And because tyres ultimately decide lap times, everyone rides around the track at pretty much the same speed. And because Michelin provides three rear slicks for each race, all designed to be race tyres, tyre management becomes a big deal, especially when riders choose softer tyres for better grip. On Sunday most of the grid chose the softest rear tyre and no one chose the hardest. The first five riders past the flag all used the medium. Sixth-placed Petrucci was the first home on a soft rear, 2.32sec behind the winner, a difference of just 0.1sec per lap.
Qatar is particularly tricky for tyre choice, because track temperature plummets after the sun goes down. Petrucci was the only top rider to choose a soft rear and a soft front.
“But I’m not so stupid,” said the Italian after his first race as a full-factory Ducati rider. “At 7.30pm (30 minutes before the start) the track temperature was dropping and at 7.45, when we chose my tyres, the temperature was still going down.”
Petrucci and his crew assumed that track temperature would continue to decrease, which could have made a soft/soft choice a winning combination. But of course it was a gamble.
“The problem was that after 7.45 the track temperature stayed stable,” Petrucci added. “It wasn’t like Saturday night, when the temperature went down, down and down and the dew arrived. Tonight there was no dew.”
Rossi: ‘we are more or less like last year’
Valentino Rossi had a topsy-turvy weekend: fastest in FP1, the warmest session of the weekend, 14th in qualifying, when the track was treacherously cold, and fifth in the race, six tenths off the win, when the track was again in good shape. That is Qatar – the track is rarely the same from one session to the next.
On Saturday the seven-time MotoGP champion seemed lost. “We are in trouble,” he said. “I don’t have a good feeling from the front and we are damaging the tyre.”
On Sunday he played an old Rossi trick, pulling the rabbit from the hat, but only just. Twelfth at the end of the first lap, he fought his way through, always a different man when it comes to the cut and thrust of racing.
After miserable Friday and Saturday nights he was smiling again, but his prognosis for his 20th season in MotoGP and his 14th with Yamaha isn’t good.
“We modified the bike for the race,” he said. “We worked well and I’m happy because it was a good race and I felt good with the bike. The problem is that we are more or less like last year. I arrived fifth, 0.6 seconds from the victory, but at this track we are always good, so we have to keep working because at other tracks we could have more problems.
“In some areas we have improved but unfortunately we always struggle with rear grip. Here the rear tyre slides but resists, but at other tracks when the tyres slide the performance usually drops more. Also, the gap in top speed is very big. The Honda and Ducati can put more power on the track, so we lose in acceleration and speed.”
Viñales: riding his M1 like it’s a Ducati or Honda
Maverick Viñales once again ended Sunday downcast and confused. He had been devastatingly fast in practice and qualifying, using a new riding technique. He doesn’t ride a Ducati or a Honda but he found he could be faster than anyone by using a Ducati/Honda riding technique, transforming his cornering lines, so that he uses the edge of the tyres as little as possible to make them last as long as possible.
“We improved a lot on corner entry and when we pick up the bike,” he said on Friday. “That’s my style – to enter the corner fast, pick up the bike really fast and ride as few metres as possible with the bike at full lean. Right now we are building a good bike for that style. We are working in that way – trying to be deeper into the corner, then open the throttle early and pick up the bike. I think that the way the Michelins work better.”
Finally, it seemed Viñales had found a way around the Yamaha’s problems of overusing the edge of the Michelins. But a poor start on Sunday ruined everything. He found he was unable to use his new lines while in the midst of the pack. It’s no coincidence that he rode his fastest lap three laps from the end while all alone.
Certainly, Viñales’ technical explanation makes some sense. But perhaps there’s a psychological aspect as well. Some riders can ride free and fast when there’s less pressure – in testing and practice – but they struggle to stay cool for the race. Yamaha has been here before. Carlos Checa, who rode for the factory from 1999 to 2004 was the same – king of testing and often fastest in practice but never a winner on a YZR500 or YZR-M1.