Fabio Quartararo waltzed yesterday’s Andalusian Grand Prix, dancing through the fieriest pit of hell with all the self-assurance of a young man who knows exactly where he’s headed.
El Diablo’s second MotoGP victory in eight days confirmed the 21-year-old as 2020 title favourite and as France’s most successful premier-class rider in more than 70 years of world championship racing.
His performance was reminiscent of Jorge Lorenzo at the height of his powers during the final season of MotoGP’s Bridgestone era, when the Spaniard perfected the art of bolting from lights-out to lead every lap.
Quartararo’s secret is pinpoint accuracy and unerring consistency. Despite the hellish conditions – ambient temperature a suffocating 37 degrees, track temperature a sizzling 60 degrees – he never made one mistake of any significance and his pace varied by just a few tenths throughout.
And he led home a Yamaha one-two-three, perhaps signalling an end to the factory’s grimmest period in its almost 50 years in the premier class.
Yamaha utterly dominated the weekend, thanks in part to the smoky demise of Pecco Bagnaia’s Pramac Ducati, in a way that hasn’t been possible since the start of MotoGP’s Triple M period – Michelin and Magneti Marelli – in 2016.
How come? Because the YZR-M1 likes Jerez’s sweeping layout and because it has the friendliest front end of them all, a crucial advantage when front grip is so critical, as it was at Jerez. The combination of the tortuous track conditions and Michelin’s 2020 rear slick had riders on a knife-edge and caused plenty of front-end crashes last weekend and the weekend before. This year’s grippier Michelin rear can cause the front to push on corner entry and unload the tyre on corner exit. Therefore a friendly front end – which gives its rider advance warning of impending disaster – is what every rider wants.
“The front of the Yamaha is really good, so it’s not easy to lose the front, you just go wide,” Maverick Viñales told me last year.
Quartararo’s runaway victory – mostly three tenths a lap faster than his pursuers – hurt Viñales, a lot. While the youngster checked out, Viñales was left to fight it out with factory team-mate Valentino Rossi. The old warhorse made himself as wide as possible and used his aggressive braking style to keep the Spaniard behind him, where Viñales had to deal with a sky-high front-tyre temperature and could hardly breathe in the searing wake of Rossi’s M1.
Poor old Valentino Rossi. Another year and he still sounds like a broken record. At Jerez his problem was the same as it’s been for the last few seasons: too…
Viñales is a huge talent, compromised by his temperament. While Quartararo is super-cool – all surf-dude hanging-loose hand signals – Viñales seems on edge. When everything goes to plan he is happy and relaxed, but the moment things go awry he loses it.
If the 2020 championship turns into a Yamaha duel – factory team versus indie team – Quartararo would seem to be the favourite. He is currently faster and more consistent, thanks to his coolness and his inch-perfect technique, which looks after the tyres better.
He is also the master at getting the maximum out of both tyres during braking. Riders now use the rear tyre a lot to slow the bike, which demands a tricky technique of loading the rear of the bike when they jump on the brakes.
“Fabio loads the rear tyre really well,” adds Viñales. “This is the most important thing I see when I look at his data.”
In fact Viñales has been trying to perfect this technique since late 2018, but he hasn’t mastered it like his young rival.
Quartararo is also more adaptable when he’s on track, so he is able to change his riding technique according to the grip available – lots of swooping corner speed when he’s got edge grip, a more point-and-squirt approach when he doesn’t.
A Viñales/Quartararo title fight will certainly be novel, both for the fans and for the riders. The last time Quartararo was in with a chance of winning a championship was in 2014 when he took the CEV Moto3 title. The last time Viñales was fully in a championship contest was the year before when he won the Moto3 world title.
Yamaha left Jerez happier than they’ve left a racetrack since the dawn of the Triple M era, but far from worry-free. Two engine failures during the first Jerez weekend – Viñales during practice and Rossi during the race – had the factory’s engineers in a panic.
Yamaha withdrew all eight engines used that weekend – two each for Viñales, Rossi, Quartararo and Franco Morbidelli – from service to be inspected with endoscope cameras. If they are passed okay they will be returned to the track, but last weekend all four Yamaha riders each used two new engines of their total allocation of five. This may or may not become a threat to Yamaha’s championship hopes, but already Viñales is one engine down on Quartararo.
Even if Yamaha doesn’t have engine reliability worries this season it already has horsepower concerns about the next few races. Ducati was strong at Jerez – where the Desmosedici is rarely in the running – and will be considerably stronger at Brno and Red Bull Ring, both horsepower tracks.
Ducati’s desmo V4 probably has an advantage of around 30 horsepower over the inline-four M1, which might explain why Yamaha is having engine issues. Yamaha engineers never stop working at reducing that deficit, but an inline-four engine simply isn’t as robust as a V4. The harder they work to increase power, the more likely the engines are likely to have problems.
Of course, the pandemic hangs over the entire paddock, threatening to interrupt or indeed end the season at any moment. Dorna and IRTA have done a great job salvaging a 13-round championship from the situation, but no one knows what effect local spikes and second waves will have. Will borders close again? Will local lockdowns get in the way? Literally no one knows.
Alex Briggs raced motocross when he was a kid, got a job as a motocross mechanic as a teenager and landed his first gig in roadracing in 1993 with Rothmans…
This is a bizarre situation for the riders, because they don’t know whether they’re contesting an eight-race championship, a 13-round championship or even a 16-race championship if three yet-to-be-confirmed out-of-Europe races get the OK, which seems less likely by the day.
The obvious – but not so easy – answer to the situation is to get into the points lead at the start of the championship and stay there.
Rossi’s broken engine at round one was therefore the worst start for the 41-year-old. And even if he hadn’t stopped he wasn’t making the greatest start to his 25th GP season – in the lower reaches of the top ten, which was where he ended his 2019 campaign.
But several days of going through the data with new crew chief David Munoz changed everything. Rossi still wasn’t fast enough to win Jerez two, but he was fast enough to score his first podium since COTA 2019, ending a 15-month drought, the longest since he scored his debut season in 1996. And Rossi was consistently fast throughout, saving his tyres despite the vicious heat.
“At the first race we suffered too much and I was too slow,” he said. “Now we have improved. In the last years the riding style in MotoGP has changed very much. In a lot of places and in a lot of corners you need to do the right thing for the tyres, more than ride well.
“It’s not easy. I have a lot of experience but sometimes my experience is a problem, because you need an open mind and you need to change different things. We have changed the balance of the bike a lot, to try to enter corners faster – trying to use my style, while adapting to the modern style needed by these tyres. We have made a step compared to last year and we need to continue in this way.”
Yamaha will have a more difficult time at Brno. Quartararo, Viñales and Rossi will have their hands full with four GP20s of Andrea Dovizioso, Danilo Petrucci, Bagnaia and Jack Miller. How will they look after their tyres if they’re unable to use the M1’s preferred swooping cornering lines? And how will Quartararo react to the pressure of leading the championship?
Motorcycle racers and the art of the impossible
You race because you love the feeling of rapid motion through space, because you love the feeling of control, because you love how you calculate risks like other people can’t calculate risks and because you love using your mind, body and soul to prove that you are right and they are wrong.
Motorcycle racing sometimes seems like a bloodthirsty sport, because riders get hurt and do things that make outsiders think they’ve got a death wish. But as bike-racing movie star Steve McQueen once said, “they’re not courting death, they’re courting being alive”.
People are either bewitched or appalled by all of this and that’s just the way it is.
Thus Marc Márquez’s Lazarus-like return at Jerez – rising from the operating table on Tuesday to ride top-ten laps on Saturday before his right arm cried enough – excited the full range of emotions. He was a hero to some, a reckless maniac to others.
The interesting thing is that the closer you get to the reality of the situation – speaking to the riders – the less outrageous Márquez’s attempt seemed.
Which is why such feats of otherworldly strength of spirit are nothing new in motorcycle racing. These achievements are lauded by those inside the paddock, while most outsiders view them with deep concern.
Like 1980s American superbike rider Dale ‘Cut It Off’ Quarterly who mashed up the little finger on his left hand when he crashed at Laguna Seca. He was rushed to hospital where surgeons gave him three options: a series of operations to recreate the finger with plastic joints, a pin that would set the finger permanently straight or amputation. “Cut it off,” said Quarterly, who raced the next day.
A few years later Kevin Schwantz – in many ways the prototype for Márquez – won the 1993 500cc world champion opening the throttle with his left hand.
The American hero, who was battling countryman Wayne Rainey for the title, had broken his right hand when he got knocked down by Mick Doohan during the British GP a few weeks earlier. During the Italian GP at Misano, round 12 of 14, Schwantz and Rainey were battling for the lead when Rainey crashed, severing his spine. Schwantz had no idea of the severity of his rival’s crash and knew he needed every point he could get to close gap on the championship leader.
The Covid-19 crisis has already taken a terrible toll on the world and last weekend, at the Spanish Grand Prix in Jerez, it was MotoGP’s turn to suffer. A fortnight…
“My right hand was still bad,” he remembers. “So by the time Wayne had crashed out of the race I was having to ride down the back straightaway cross-handed. I’d come out of that fast kink [when Misano ran anti-clockwise] shift gears, then reach over and hold the throttle with my left hand, so I could release the right hand and shake it for a couple of seconds, just enough to get some circulation back.”
The following year – his last full season – Schwantz broke his other hand for the third time. He should’ve undergone surgery and rested up. Instead, he carried on racing, in grim agony.
“The bones would dislocate every race and then I’d get them reset Sunday night. I won at Donington [his final GP win], even though the bones dislocated halfway through the race. That evening I was in the Clinica Mobile with two guys hanging onto my upper arm, one guy hanging onto my hand and [MotoGP medic] Doctor Costa poking around with his thumbs, popping the bones back into place.”
And then there was Doohan when he was battling Rainey for the 1992 title. He had crashed at Assen, breaking his right leg. Local surgeons botched the op, so Costa sewed his legs together, to save the dying right leg. After two weeks the legs were separated and four weeks later he was in Brazil for the penultimate race at São Paulo.
“It was extremely tricky because I didn’t have any feeling from the knee down, so my foot would come off the footpeg and I wouldn’t know until it was floating in the breeze,” Doohan recalls.
And riding the bike wasn’t the only nightmare. “The night before the race I woke up and the leg had basically exploded with all the infection. All this puss oozed out over the bed, so Costa came in to flush it out with saline solution. He’d pour a litre through this hole, like a big boil-type thing, then flush it back out to get rid of all the crap. It wasn’t the best of nights.”
When surgeons attached an Ilizarov external fixator to straighten Doohan’s broken and bent tibia and fibula they were amazed at his ability to handle pain. “It’s like he’s reset his pain thermostat,” said Dr Kevin Louie. “Most people with external fixators will use an opiate painkiller, like morphine. Mick took paracetamol.”
More recently there was Cal Crutchlow’s 2012 British GP, which seemed to have ended when he broke and dislocated his left ankle in FP3. Doctors at the local hospital told him he would have to miss the next four races
“I’m not allowed to put weight on the foot for eight to ten weeks,” he said. “But I’m a typical motorcycle racer, so that’s eight to ten hours.”
When Crutchlow returned from hospital to the paddock he lied to circuit doctors, who had told him he wouldn’t be able to race with broken bones. However, the hospital had already been in contact….
“So I had to do a vigorous fitness test before warm-up,” added The Briton. “The test was f**king murder. I had to run from one side of the medical centre to the other four times. Then I had to do 20 foot raises on both feet, then ten on the left and then ten on the heel.” He started the race from the back of the grid and finished seventh.
Worse was to come a few weeks later. “The worst one was Sachsenring in 2013,” Crutchlow told me recently. “I was f**ked. Honestly, if you’d seen me! That was another time I shouldn’t have raced. When I crashed in FP2 [at Sachsenring’s notorious Turn 11] there was so much blood that they loaded me with morphine. I was completely out of it. When I got up on Saturday morning I ended up flat on my back in the motorhome, pissing all over myself, with Lucy [now Mrs Crutchlow] screaming because she thought I was dying. Then I went out, qualified second and the next day nearly won the race [he finished 1.5 seconds behind winner Marc Márquez]. But I had no feeling in my right arm.”
It was the same deal for Crutchlow last weekend – racing with a pinned left scaphoid which caused him to overuse his right arm to the point where it went numb, causing him to run off the track. That’s why he briefly came into the pits
By coincidence, Sachsenring 2013 was the weekend that Jorge Lorenzo put himself out of that year’s title battle by crashing and breaking his left collarbone in practice. In fact rebreaking the bone he had broken two weeks earlier at Assen – the accident that became the blueprint for Márquez’s abortive return at Jerez.
Lorenzo crashed in FP2, flew home to Barcelona in his private jet, had the bone plated in the middle of the night, flew back to Assen on race-day morning and finished fifth. Surely this was madness?
“I’m not a crazy person and I think riders are not crazy people – we know exactly if we are fit or not to race,” he said. “If I’d felt I wasn’t in condition to try, I would never have tried. I am not a hero, I am so human. I felt a lot of pain during the race but if you push hard to get your goal you can reach it.”
Such unlikely comebacks are entirely thanks to the surgical technique of pinning and plating bones. During so-called open reduction and internal fixation, the broken pieces of the fractured bones are realigned in open reduction and reconnected by pins, plates and screws in internal fixation.
ORIF has been around since the late 19th century but the technology has only been perfected in recent decades. War has helped a lot, because there’s that symbiotic relationship between military engineers, who work to find better ways of blowing people apart, and medical engineers, who work out new ways to bolt people back together.
The first GP racer to undergo ORIF surgery was East German MZ rider Ernst Degner, who broke an elbow during practice for the 1961 Dutch TT, while he was battling for that year’s 125cc title with Honda’s Tom Phillis. Degner couldn’t wait for the injury to heal naturally, because the Belgian GP was the following weekend, so his East German minders drove him home where he went under the knife.
“I have a minor sensation to report,’ wrote British reporter Mick Woollett at Spa-Francorchamps. “Ernst Degner will be racing. He’s had an operation on his arm, a steel pin has been inserted to ‘bolt’ things together.”
What Márquez did last weekend was just the same, after surgeons had undertaken ORIF on the right humerus he broke the previous Sunday. But the reigning MotoGP champ came in for plenty of criticism when he decided to ride: he will be a danger to himself and he will be a danger to others.
In fact he was neither because the moment he felt he might endanger himself and his rivals he withdrew from the event. The problems started during FP4, his second session of the weekend, when his injured right arm reacted angrily to the stresses of riding a MotoGP bike.
“In the morning I felt really good,” he said. “I was able to ride 37.7s with used tyre, the same kind of times from last weekend. When I started again in the afternoon [FP4] I felt really good again and I could ride in good way, with good feeling. But when I stopped in the box and went out again something changed immediately. It was the inflammation. The arm got bigger, pressed on some nerves and I lost the power in my arms in some corners.
“At that point you need to be honest with your body and understand the situation. I told the team I would go out in Q2 and if I had the same kind of feeling I would give up. Tonight I will sleep well, because I tried.”
Márquez most likely finished his 2020 title challenge with the terrifying 100mph highside that ended a breathtaking charge through the pack after an early mistake, when he lost the front. His second and much costlier error came after he had moved into third place, behind Viñales, who was some way behind race leader Quartararo.
“Last Sunday you cannot imagine how much I enjoyed the race,” he added. “After my mistake and big save it was a strange race but I enjoyed myself a lot on the bike; I was feeling really, really good. The mistake arrived when I said, ‘OK, the job is done’. I arrived behind Viñales and with only few laps to go it was impossible to catch Quartararo, so the job was done and I was going to follow Viñales and overtake him at the end. That’s when I flew. That corner, every lap I was cutting the inside kerb. That lap I didn’t cut the kerb, I just touched the white line and suddenly both tyres, the front and the rear, gave up. It was my mistake, of course. This kind of thing can happen in racing and you must learn from it.”
Márquez will be much stronger at Brno, but how strong? There are 11 races left – maybe fewer – and he is 50 points behind Quartararo. It seems like an impossible mountain to climb, but stranger things have happened. “This is racing, anything can happen,” he says. “I will never give up if I have some chance.”