Quartararo annihilates his rivals like Marc Márquez used to

MotoGP

Fabio Quartararo gets better and better, thanks to a riding technique that’s proactive, not reactive. Plus Aleix Espargaró’s last-lap blunder and why many riders think Takaaki Nakagami should’ve been penalised for his Turn 1 mistake

Fabio Quartararo MotoGP Yamaha 2022 Catalunyan GP

Quartararo is always incredibly busy on his YZR-M1 – that’s how he gets maximum speed and tyre life out of the bike

Yamaha

Whatever Yamaha agreed to pay Fabio Quartararo for the 2023 and 2024 MotoGP seasons isn’t enough. His performance at Barcelona, in treacherously hot conditions, which had loads of riders crashing out, was utterly perfect and continues what’s turning out to be a remarkable title defence.

His 6.473-second victory over second-placed Jorge Martin was MotoGP’s biggest dry-weather victory margin since Marc Márquez won the 2019 Australian GP, which tells us a lot. And he finished 32.881 seconds ahead of the next YZR-M1, a difference of 1.4 seconds per lap.

I must admit I didn’t think Quartararo would manage to do what he’s doing. I thought this would be the year of the V4s, after two consecutive inline-four championships. Michelin’s new-for-2020 softer-casing rear slick initially worked better with the smoother-cornering Suzuki and Yamaha, but I guessed that the V4 manufacturers (Aprilia, Ducati, Honda and KTM) would have the tyre fully figured out for 2022.

Fabio Quartararo MotoGP Yamaha 2022 Catalunyan GP leads field at start

All hell is about to be unleashed as Nakagami is about to take out Bagnaia (both hidden behind Aleix Espargaró) and Alex Rins

Yamaha

Some of them have, some of them haven’t, but no one seems to have the answer to the 23-year-old Frenchman’s mind-boggling riding.

The wonder of motorcycle racing is that although it’s a technical sport it’s still the human that makes the machine, rather than the other way around. It’s the moulding of mind, muscle and metal together that makes the result.

The late, great John Surtees – seven-times 500cc and 350cc world champion and later Formula 1 world champion – put it better than anyone when he said that motor racing is essentially “having a conversation between you and the machine”.

When you’re racing you feel how the machine reacts to your inputs, so it’s telling you what it needs you to do to go faster, if you are prepared to listen.

Quartararo definitely knows how to listen to his motorcycle and have that conversation, so he can work out how to get the most out of it, whatever the situation. The way he constantly moves his body – forward, back, left and right – to keep his bike balanced and to help his tyres find maximum grip, without over-stressing them, is a wonder to behold.

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What’s particularly special about these movements is that they’re not reactive but proactive, because you need to work ahead of your machine.

Quartararo knows his YZR-M1 intimately, he’s been conversing with it since November 2018, and by the time he started Sunday’s race he had ridden 92 laps of Barcelona-Catalunya, so he knew exactly what his YZR-M1 was going to do at every point of the circuit before it did it, so he was already making those movements before they were actually required. Otherwise it’s too late. This the beauty of a top racer’s relationship with his motorcycle.

And it’s not only that. Quartararo used to be somewhat excitable, likely to lose his cool when things didn’t go his way. He’s not like that anymore.

He understands his machine’s positives and its negatives, so he went into this season knowing he would get soundly beaten at some tracks – he was ninth in Qatar, eighth in Argentina and seventh in the US – where he didn’t moan and got his head down to take home as many points as possible, always aware there will be better days ahead.

He’s clever too. On Saturday at Barcelona he didn’t push too hard in FP4 because he didn’t want to alert his rivals to his true pace.

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The last two weekends were supposed be tough times for Quartararo, but he went home with 20 points from Mugello and 25 from Barcelona. Both tracks have big start/finish straights, where his bike was 20th quickest through the speed traps – 6.6mph/10.3km/h down at Mugello and 5.2mph/8.4km/h down at Barcelona. (The handicap was smaller at Barcelona because the entry to the start/finish is both faster and downhill, as opposed to slower and uphill.)

Obviously Quartararo knows his M1 has a corner-speed advantage, which he uses multiple times each lap, but his top-speed handicap always leaves him vulnerable on fast straights, because when he gets passed by faster bikes they can block his way in the corners and then he’s in trouble.

Quartararo didn’t have that problem on Sunday. The way he out-braked both Pecco Bagnaia and Aleix Espargaró into the first corner was remarkable – full risk! – and a sure sign of a rider peaking on self-confidence.

That manoeuvre may also have saved his entire race – if he hadn’t swept past Bagnaia it could’ve been him that was taken out by Takaaki Nakagami.

From there no one saw which way Quartararo went. He knew he had to break his pursuers immediately, so they couldn’t pass him on the start/finish, so he was super-fast from the start, riding his fastest lap on lap three. His consistency was astonishing – from lap two to lap 23 of 24 his times varied by just 0.8 seconds. This was man and machine in perfect harmony.

Espargaró was also man and machine in perfect harmony, looking good for second place until he made the mistake that most racers, even three-times 500cc king Wayne Rainey, make once in their career. And usually only once.

Rainey missed the last-lap signal on his team’s pit board while battling Kevin Schwantz for victory in the 1989 Japanese GP, for the same reason Espargaró missed his team’s pit board on Sunday.

Aleix Espergaro Aprilia 2022 Catalunyan GP

Espargaró had an almost perfect weekend: pole position and set for a strong second until his blunder

Aprilia

Rainey was so often side by side with his arch-rival down Suzuka’s start/finish that he couldn’t see his pit board, so he started counting the laps remaining displayed on the control tower – for the benefit of the spectators – and failed to realise that the numbers only clicked over after the leaders had crossed the line, so as he commenced the final lap the tower told him he had two laps to go.

Espargaró couldn’t check his pit board because the Aprilia garage was at the far end of the pit-lane, close to the last corner, so he was too busy to look to the right each lap, so he too started relying on the circuit’s numbers tower put there for the crowd.

“I was watching the tower and I saw ‘L1’, so I did one lap and I forgot that here the last lap is ‘0’ not ‘1’, so I closed the gas on the straight,” said the distraught Spaniard, who’s currently second overall in the title chase and lost an extra nine points (from second place to fifth) to Quartararo as a result of his mistake.

Espargaró spent the entire race battling with Martin’s Pramac Ducati. The Argentine GP winner didn’t go flat-out after Quartararo from the start because he had been told by his team and Michelin to save his rear tyre, but in fact he had plenty left at the end of the race.

The countrymen passed each other on four occasions – always into Turn 1, followed throughout by Martin’s team-mate Johann Zarco.

Those four Turn 1 moves were all just about identical, reflecting the difficulty of overtaking in MotoGP. The bikes now have so much front downforce during braking that all the riders are locking the front tyre on the brakes, so it’s pretty much impossible to fully out-brake a rival. The best you can do is get alongside and stay there until it’s time to peel into the corner, leaving your rival no choice but to give way. If you try to fully out-brake someone, there’s a chance you’ll properly lock the front tyre, run wide and your rival will retake you on the cutback.

Martin’s return to form, following a grim start to his second season in MotoGP, which had him crash in five of the first nine races, came thanks to a front-suspension change. The former Moto2 and Moto3 winner returned to his 2021 Öhlins forks, which gave him more feeling in corner entry, so he can hit his entry target precisely, which allows him to use a little rear brake to turn the bike quicker.

“I’m still the Martinator!” grinned the 24-year-old, who should be good to watch in the second half of this season.

Quartararo was lucky that all his most dangerous rivals had a horrible Sunday: Bagnaia taken out at the first corner, Espargaró missing the last lap and three-times winner Enea Bastianini crashing out again.

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The Nakagami incident, which also took out Alex Rins, breaking the Suzuki’s rider’s left wrist, was horrific and not unlike the multiple rider pile-up at the start of the 2006 Catalan GP. It’s a long run from the start line to Turn 1 at Barcelona, so lots of speed and lots of heavy braking into a tight right/left that funnels everyone onto the same line.

Nakagami locked the front, fell down, his helmet striking the rear tyre and seat of Bagnaia’s bike, while his fallen machine took out Rins. The 30-year-old Japanese received an almighty whiplash when his helmet made contact with Bagnaia’s fast-spinning rear tyre. He was very lucky not to break his neck.

MotoGP’s stewards decided that the crash was a straightforward racing incident but many riders disagreed and were united in their condemnation of Nakagami, not just because of this particular mistake, but because in recent years he has made himself many enemies for ultra-aggressive first-lap attacks.

Fabio Quartararo MotoGP Yamaha 2022 Catalunyan GP leads field at start

All hell is about to be unleashed as Nakagami is about to take out Bagnaia (both hidden behind Aleix Espargaró) and Alex Rins

Yamaha

“It wasn’t a racing incident because you don’t attack that much,” said Quartararo. “I don’t know how Pecco had started from second [on the front row] and Nakagami from far away [the fourth row] and yet he could still hit his head on Pecco’s rear wheel.

“I think in the first laps we all need to be conscious that we are racing big bikes, with a minimum weight of 160 kilos and if you get hit by a bike like this you can pass away. After the start is the most dangerous part of the race.”

Martin agreed. “For me it’s not a racing incident,” he said. “I think they should’ve penalised Nakagami already at Mugello [where he tangled with Rins, the Spaniard again crashing out] but he wasn’t penalised, so he thinks he can do anything, so now he did it again and if they don’t penalise him here he will do the same at the next race. It’s dangerous for the other riders. They need to work out a system to help the safety of the riders.”

Third-placed Zarco also agreed. “Calling it a racing incident isn’t the right thing,” said the Frenchman. “It’s a pity they didn’t penalise him for the next race but even worse is that he has lost all credibility with the riders. At Mugello we were nice with him, but it’s not normal they [the stewards] didn’t say anything here.”

No surprise that Rins, now fighting to be fit for next week’s German GP, was angriest of all, calling for a change of stewards, while also sympathising with Nakagami.

“First of all I hope Taka is okay, because I saw him with his [pained] face very bad. But he cannot go on like this, he cannot ride like this. He was over the limit. This is the first thing I want to say.

“The second thing is that it’s unacceptable, because the race direction, the stewards, make zero sense in what they say. To say ‘no further action’ about what happened in the race… I already said to Freddie [Spencer, former 500cc and 250cc world champion, now MotoGP’s chief steward] at Mugello that they need to penalise Taka with the same penalty they gave [Deniz] Öncü last year.” (a race-ban for causing the COTA Moto3 pile-up.)

Taka Nakagami 2022 Catalunyan GP MotoGP

Nakagami on the grid before the race

LCR Honda

“It’s crazy and today they demonstrated it on TV – the stewards are not at the level of MotoGP.”

There is precedent for Turn 1 pile-ups like Sunday’s. No one was sanctioned for the 2006 Catalunya mess because that was a racing incident, triggered by Ducati team-mates Sete Gibernau and Loris Capirossi tagging each other.

However, three years earlier at Motegi, Suzuki rider John Hopkins was given a one-race ban for triggering Turn 1 carnage by arriving way too fast and taking out Carlos Checa and Colin Edwards.

Journalists used to be able to talk to Race Direction to discuss decisions and sanctions, but we are no longer allowed this important access, so we have no idea how Spencer and his colleagues came to this conclusion, or any other for that matter.

Alex RIns Suzuki MotoGP rider outside hospital with a bandaged broken wrist

Alex Rins broke his left wrist in the Turn 1 chaos and faces a fight to be fit for the next race

Suzuki

We don’t even receive detailed reports following steward decisions, unlike F1, which publishes full reports. And riders who visit the control tower to question the stewards tell us they are often brushed away without an explanation.

MotoGP is becoming less transparent, not more transparent. It seems like the championship is more and more run by an ivory control tower that appears separated from the rest of the paddock.

The people at the top should see there are reasons for change, but I suspect they may be blinded by arrogance.

 

Addendum: Since writing this blog I’ve been told the steward’s decision re the Nakagami incident was included, entirely unhighlighted and unannounced, at the very bottom of Dorna’s standard post-race release, which isn’t intended for full-time MotoGP journalists. Neither were journalists told about the inclusion of the decision in the release, despite asking for a comment from the stewards.

Here is the decision: