MotoGP: You’ve got to have faith

MotoGP

Fabio Quartararo bounced back from a poor start to his MotoGP title defence at Portimão, to share the title lead with Alex Rins, who finished 2021 outside the championship top ten. Their success is all in the mind…

Fabio Quartararo celebrates victory at 2022 MotoGP Portuguese GP

World champ Quartararo hadn’t finished a dry race inside the top six until Sunday

Yamaha

When every MotoGP bike on the grid has basically the same performance, what becomes the most important factor in race results? The rider, of course. And what part of the rider? His brain, of course.

Or as five-time MotoGP world champion Mick Doohan once famously said: “Motorcycle racing is 90% psychological”. Or was it 95%?

Thus the most outstanding riders at Portimão were winner Fabio Quartararo and fourth-placed finisher Alex Rins, who are both looking inside themselves for the speed, rather than expecting it to come from outside, from the motorcycle.

And now the pair share the championship lead, thanks to that attitude: do you best, keep fighting, keep amassing the points and try not to worry about anything outside of your own control.

“By the third corner, I knew I was going to win”

Quartararo’s first win since Silverstone last August followed an apparently grim start to his title defence: ninth, eighth and seventh in the dry Qatar, Argentine and US GPs, plus a second place in the rain-soaked Indonesian GP.

In fact Quartararo has been impressive since the start of the season; not so much with his results but with his riding and his state of mind. Finishing outside the top six in three of four races would’ve been more than enough for many reigning champions to throw their toys out of the pram and start screaming at their teams.

But the 23-year-old Frenchman didn’t do that. He rode as hard as he knew how, manhandling the Yamaha like only he knows how and kept plugging away, waiting for better days. And circuits. Which arrived last weekend.

“As soon as I was second at the third corner [behind early leader Joan Mir on the Suzuki] I knew I was going to win,” said Quartararo, who understood what he could do with a clear track in front of him and no quicker V4s to hamper his progress.

Fabio Quartararo leads in the 2022 MotoGP Portuguese GP

Quartararo has just taken early leader Mir and is about to disappear into the distance

Yamaha

“Qatar was tough because last year we won there and this year we finished ninth and then we finished seventh in Austin, where last year we were second. When you win the championship you want to fight again for the championship, so those results were tough to accept.

“Before the race in Austin it was tough to know that you won’t fight for victory. I started the race and said, look, whatever the position I will give my 100% and this is what I did and I finished P7. I knew I was riding well and I’ve always said I will fight the same, whether it’s for P1, P5 or P10. In 2019 and 2020 when I was going down I went really down. Last year and this year when I go down I always try to fight back for P7, P8 or P9, like it’s for the podium. This is the massive change I made.”

Of course, Quartararo was helped by two factors at Portimão. He went well in Saturday’s tricky damp qualifying session, which put him on the second row, so he didn’t get swamped at the start. And Portimão’s layout suits the Yamaha, because corner speed is everything through its many sweeping, interconnected corners.

The start/finish straight was a weak point of course, but riders enter the straight through the super-fast final corner, where Quartararo was at his strongest. At Austin, for example, the back straight is preceded by a dead-stop, first-gear corner, where Quartararo was unable to make the difference.

“We know our weak point – our top speed is really low – but I was super-fast exiting the last corner here and over the hill [onto the straight] I tried to not get a lot of wheelie, so the last sector was the key point for me.”

Fabio Quartararo on the podium at 2022 MotoGP Portuguese GP

Podium men: Quartararo, runner-up Johann Zarco and third-placed Aleix Espargaró

“What we miss is top speed, but apart from that our bike is fantastic. Apart from top speed I don’t know what we can improve – here we had really good turning and good braking stability, so the bike is working super-good for me.”

Not for Yamaha’s other riders, however. Yamaha’s next finisher on Sunday was Andrea Dovizioso in 11th, 29 seconds down, a deficit of more than a second a lap.

Once again, Quartararo proved he is the blue Marc Márquez and will be able to name his price for 2023 and beyond, because Yamaha needs him more than ever before. However, Quartararo will want to see some dyno charts from Yamaha’s 2023 engine before he thinks about re-signing for the factory.

Related article

This coming weekend Jerez – with its sweeping, interconnecting corners – should also be good for the reigning champion but there will soon be other tracks where the YZR-M1 will be less at home, where he won’t be able to use the bike’s corner speed and where he may find himself deeper on the grid and racing in the pack, with not enough power to overtake on the straights and with his front-tyre pressure soaring.

“It’s true that when we have to make V-shaped corners we are lost because we can’t use our corner speed,” he added. “And as soon as we get overtaken we are lost. The bike works well but as soon as we are with other riders we aren’t in good shape. But I will never give up.”

Rins was Sunday’s biggest surprise, surging through from 23rd on the grid, after a grim two days of rain-soaked practice and qualifying, to fight his way all the way through to fourth. He may even have had a go at the podium if he hadn’t destroyed his front tyre with all his overtaking moves.

Alex Rins in the 2022 MotoGP Portuguese GP

Rins during his charge – he’s just got the better of Miguel Oliveira and Alex Marquez

Suzuki

The 26-year-old Spaniard is a new man this year. Last season he blew a fuse, crashing out of way too many races. Why? Rins graduated to MotoGP with Suzuki in 2017 and two years later was joined by a young rookie. Rins was therefore the senior member of the team but in 2020 he was beaten to the world title by Mir. That’s the kind of thing that can destabilise you and Rins was definitely destabilised last year.

He started 2021 with two points scores from the first seven races and ended the year 13th, ten places lower than his 2020 championship result. This year the first five race have brought him home seventh, fifth, third, second and fourth. So what’s changed?

“Not many people around me were believing me, but I was believing.”

“What’s good is my faith, my strength to be there,” he said after the race. “Not many people around me were believing me, but I was believing.

“This year I have more control over myself. I’m happy because at the end of last year I was really in the shit. We did a good job during the winter with my trainer and my mental coach. We worked a lot but I don’t want to say how.”

The 2022 GSX-RR’s impressive straight-line speed has also helped Rins. When you are losing time and positions on the straights you can’t help but panic because you know that your only hope of running with the quicker bikes is by taking bigger risks in the corners, especially with the front tyre. With more straight-line speed you can think more and feel the bike better, instead of tempting fate at every turn.

Start of the 2022 MotoGP Portuguese GP

Mir leads into Turn 1 – team-mate Rins has a lot of work to do

Suzuki

“Thanks to the evolution of the engine we are able to ride and feel the bike a bit more,” he added. “Before we were losing a lot on the straights and recovering time on the brakes and with corner speed, so maybe this is one reason I can feel the bike more.”

On yesterday’s first lap Rins passed 13 riders, going from 23rd to tenth. Those first few miles of the race were so hectic and he was so deep in the zone that he couldn’t even remember what had happened.

“I don’t know what I did at the start! I recovered a lot of positions and that was the key, to start well to recover as soon as possible.”

Related article

At the first corner Rins threw caution to the wind – because he knew he had no choice if he wanted a good result.

“I took the exterior line, the risky line, but it worked.”

Like everyone else, Rins has no idea who will win this strangest of championships, which is so unpredictable because when the competition is so close marginal gains and marginal losses made by every team and every rider at every race can make huge differences.

“It’s difficult to put a finger on one rider because everyone is super-fast and all the bikes are fast,” Rins adds. “Even Aprilia is one of constructors that has the chance to take the championship.”

Rins’ chief concern is improving the Suzuki’s anti-wheelie downforce aero. For example, at Portimão it was obvious that Mir was losing time with wheelies over the brow onto the start/finish. The problem is that the Suzuki still doesn’t have the same horsepower as the V4s and one reason it’s comparatively so fast on the straights is its minimal downforce aero which gives less drag. If Suzuki engineers add more downforce to reduce wheelies they will lose speed in the higher gears through drag.