Why Fabio Quartararo is so fast

MotoGP

Fabio Quartararo’s crew chief Diego Gubellini helps explain why his rider is ruling the 2021 MotoGP world championship – it’s a combination of technology, feel and dancing

FABIO QUARTARARO, 2021 YAMAHA

Quartararo manhandles his bike and gets 100% from Michelin's front slick, just like Marc Márquez

Yamaha

With nine races done and ten to go (pandemic permitting) Fabio Quartararo enjoys a 34-point lead in the 2021 MotoGP world championship. At this stage of last year’s championship Quartararo stood second, one point behind leader Andrea Dovizioso, and yet he ended the season 44 points down on champion Joan Mir. In other words, anything can happen.

Or can it? Quartararo is a different man this year and his 2021 Yamaha YZR-M1 is a different motorcycle.

“Now I’m mentally stronger and I’m complaining less,” he said recently.

Of course, Quartararo’s new-found inner strength is important, but how much comes from inside and how much from outside?

“Car racing is all data, more or less. I enjoy bikes more because this ‘black hole’ that the rider calls ‘feeling’ is super-interesting”

Technology and emotions are much closer bedfellows in motorcycles racing than they are in car racing. If car racing is 99% technology and 1% driver feel then motorcycle racing is maybe 70% technology and 30% rider feel.

This is confirmed by MotoGP’s most successful chassis designer, Alex Baumgartel, one half of the Kalex partnership that has dominated Moto2 for a decade.

Baumgartel started out in car racing, before switching to motorcycles, because he found bikes more challenging.

“Car racing is all data, more or less,” he says. “I enjoy bikes more because this ‘black hole’ that the rider calls ‘feeling’ is super-interesting. You read the rider’s eyes to know if the bike is working or not; the look he gives you is more important than what you get from the datalogger.”

This is why technology and emotions are so intertwined in bikes. If the rider can’t feel the bike he won’t be able to push into the danger zone without fear of crashing.

When he can feel the bike he can take a big running jump into the danger zone and dance around in there all day – charging around, apparently like a maniac. But he’s not riding like a maniac, because he can feel the motorcycle so well that it tells him when things are about to go wrong, so he can pull back from the brink, a millisecond or two from disaster.

Quartararo finds himself in this situation because the 2021 YZR-M1 is basically a 2019 M1, with a 2020 engine (because 2021 engine upgrades were banned as a Covid cost saving measure). Yamaha engineers worked around the 2020 engine with its different crankcases and different packaging to create a motorcycle that would offer riders the same feel as the 2019 bike.

Fabio Quartararo, Yamah 2021

Quartararo climbs over the front of his M1 to reduce wheelie at Jerez

Yamaha

How did they do this? We don’t know, but most likely by revising chassis stiffness, especially around the front of the bike, and by moving components around to replicate the balance of the 2019 M1.

During the final stages of last season many observers suggested that Quartararo lost his championship lead because he couldn’t handle the pressure. However, his crew chief Diego Gubellini denies that this was the root cause of his collapse.

“Many people start talking about the pressure on Fabio’s mind – actually the biggest problem was the technical situation with the bike,” says Gubellini, who’s worked with Quartararo since the Frenchman graduated to MotoGP in 2019. “Last year he was super-good at some tracks and struggled a lot at others, with braking and corner speed. Even though from the outside the 2020 bike looked very similar to the 2019 bike there were a lot of different parts, so the feeling was far from what it had been in 2019.

“Fabio never really got used to the 2020 bike, while this year’s is much more similar to the 2019 and that’s why he has the feeling he needs to be consistent. Basically he is fighting for the podium at every race, which is the crucial point to be in the fight for the title.”

When Quartararo first raced in MotoGP many people thought he had borrowed his technique from Jorge Lorenzo, who won three MotoGP titles with Yamaha between 2010 and 2015. Yes, Quartararo is super-accurate and consistent, but he’s no Lorenzo replica.

Lorenzo’s super-smooth, glide-through-the-corner technique is only one weapon in Quartararo’s armoury. Lorenzo could only win that way, whereas Quartararo can win in other ways because he is more adaptable, a quality that’s more vital than ever because the bikes are faster than ever while the electronics are lower-spec and tyres are tricky, so the rider has to make things happen himser.

“Lorenzo was very smooth and very fast through the corners,” Gubellini continues. “This was extremely good with the Yamaha, especially with the Bridgestone tyres. Fabio is similar because he can carry a lot of speed through the corners but his style is different.

“What’s typical of Fabio and the new generation of riders is that they play a lot with their bodies to compensate, so they make a lot of weight transfer to manage braking and acceleration. Lorenzo moved a lot on the bike, but laterally – left and right – because his target was to increase corner speed. Fabio moves a bit less this way but much more forward and backwards.”

Fabio Quartararo Yamaha SRT

Diego Gubellini (wearing glasses) congratulates Quartararo on taking pole position at Sepang in 2019

Petronas SRT

MotoGP riding technique is in a constant state of evolution, according to technology and tech regulations, and it’s always the rider’s job to find new ways to extract the maximum from the tool he has beneath him.

The move to Michelin tyres and spec electronics in 2016 was the biggest tech change in MotoGP since the change from 500cc two-strokes to 990cc four-strokes in 2002.

Thus it follows that this change of technology required a major adjustment of riding technique. Since 2016 riders have had to manhandle their machines much more because the electronics – traction control, anti-wheelie and engine-braking control – are nowhere near as good as they had been and because the tyres are much more complicated in the way they behave.

Constantly adjusting front/rear bike balance with your body makes you faster through controlling wheelspin (by shifting backwards to increase load on the rear tyre) and reducing wheelies to increase acceleration (by moving forward to increase load over the front of the bike to assist the downforce aero).

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And dancing around on the motorcycle also helps you get the most out of the tyres without asking too much, by reducing load and stress on the front or rear tyre, as appropriate.

Comparing Quartararo’s technique to Marc Márquez’s is just as valid as comparing it to Lorenzo’s, despite the fact that they ride very different motorcycles.

It’s no coincidence that Márquez is also super-moveable aboard his Honda RC213V and it’s no coincidence Quartararo’s greatest strength is his ability to extract the maximum from Michelin’s front tyre, which was Márquez’s greatest strength in his six MotoGP championships.

Of course, Quartararo – like Márquez – needs the bike to help him do that.

“Last year’s bike had no feeling when you turned into corners, so you didn’t know if you would crash or not and you went wide,” says Quartararo. “This year I can feel the limit and when I want the bike to turn it turns.”

The 22-year-old is also adaptable in this area, again like Márquez. How he attacks a corner depends on many factors, from corner layout to the available grip and much in between. Sometimes he finds his speed in upright braking, other times through braking deep into the corner and sometimes with a bit of both

Gubellini again. “Braking is one of Fabio’s strong points, but the best thing is that while many riders are strong on the brakes or strong on corner speed, Fabio can either have both at the same time, or if he can’t find the speed in braking he will find it with corner speed and vice versa. This is so important and helps him to be more consistent at different tracks and in different conditions.”

Fabio Quartararo, 2021 Yamaha

Quartararo out of shape on the brakes at June’s Catalan GP

Yamaha

Quartararo and his Italian crew chief have developed a keep-it-simple strategy for race weekends: don’t keep changing the set-up and let other riders try any new kit offered by Yamaha, so that your bike stays as unchanged as possible from one track to the next and from one session to the next.

That way the rider becomes more and more familiar with the bike until he reaches that point where he knows what the bike is going to do before it does it.

This is the state of grace we know as confidence. And it isn’t something hazy or mythical, it’s a feeling that comes from the technical achievement of adjusting the motorcycle so that it talks to the rider. Once again, it’s technology and emotions intertwined, it’s what man and machine in harmony is all about.

Gubellini’s core expertise is electronics. He started out as a data-acquisition technician in the final years of the 500s, then worked on developing electronics strategies in the early years of MotoGP. He has been a crew chief since 2012, with Michele Pirro, Scott Redding, Stefan Bradl, Tito Rabat, Franco Morbidelli and now Quartararo.

So it’s no surprise that he prefers playing with maps to clickers.

“Our style is trying to keep the bike the same as before,” he explains. “We try to work in different areas – it’s very important to fix and manage the electronics. Also the key point, especially with the Michelins, is to let the tyres work in the correct range. If we can’t fix a problem with the electronics or the tyres then we think about the setting. It’s completely different from the past but it’s how we like to work.”

“Also, this year Fabio has more experience so he can ride around any problems. When you race a motorcycle you always have some problems, so this is very important.”

Of course Quartararo will run into difficulties at some races. The next two at the Red Bull Ring could be complicated for the M1, so he may have to switch into damage-limitation mode there.

Meanwhile, technology and emotions will most likely continue to enjoy a very different kind of relationship on the other side of the factory Yamaha garage.