2019 MotoGP San Marino Grand Prix: Will Quartararo take Márquez's crown?

by Mat Oxley on 16th September 2019

MotoGP Race Insight: Fabio Quartararo is shaping up to be the biggest threat to Marc Márquez’s domination of MotoGP, after the San Marino Grand Prix. Here’s why…

Marc Marquez stalks Fabio Quartararo at the 2019 MotoGP San Marino Grand Prix

Quartararo leads Márquez Photo: Petronas SRT

“Marc must prepare for more races like that,” said Fabio Quartararo’s team manager Wilco Zeelenberg after the young rookie had pushed the world champion all the way in Sunday’s San Marino Grand Prix.

But why? What is it that makes the 20-year-old Frenchman such a threat to Márquez’s dominance, more so than Andrea Dovizioso and Álex Rins, who beat Márquez at the previous two races?

To answer that question you must first examine what makes Márquez so special. The five-times MotoGP king has all kinds of talents, but most remarkable is his ability to control front-tyre slides, so he can keep his front Michelin squirming into corners, when other riders would already be sliding down the asphalt on their backsides. If he has one winning secret, this is it.

Talk to tyre technicians and suspension technicians – who work with all the riders – and they will tell you that Márquez is unique in this respect. He possesses a combination of talent, reactions and bravery that no one can match in this area of machine control.

What about Quartararo? I think he may be getting there. Misano was very slippery all weekend, with 69 crashes over the three days, after the circuit owners had treated the circuit in an effort to increase grip. They shot-peened the track to decrease the asphalt’s macro roughness and increase its micro-roughness. In other words, fracturing the aggregate in the bitumen to create sharper-edged stones.

There is no doubt that Quartararo is a one-in-a-billion talent, like Márquez. But his speed goes further than that.

It didn’t work – the fastest MotoGP lap was almost seven-tenths of a second slower than last year. Even Moto3 winner Tatsuki Suzuki likened the grip level to riding in the rain, while Moto2 pole-man Fabio Di Giannantonio called the surface “dangerous”.

On Friday alone, Quartararo lost the front innumerable times and never seemed afraid to come back for more. Because every time you lose the front and don’t crash you learn something.

“It’s positive if I can feel I’m losing the front and I don’t crash,” he said. “I was pushing to try to brake really hard and to try to feel the limit with the front and I felt it, which is something really great; to feel the limit and not crash.”

That feeling is a nanosecond of the rubber no longer gripping the track and instead skating across the asphalt. For any normal human being, it’s a bowel-loosening moment, which ends with gravel rash and worse.

“The Honda and the Yamaha behave differently,” added Zeelenberg, who previously worked with Jorge Lorenzo and Maverick Viñales in the factory Yamaha team. “The Honda loses the front in a different way to the Yamaha. Normally with the Yamaha, we weren’t able to save front-end slides because ‘clack’ and the front was gone. Maybe the Honda has the same problem, except with Marc. Fabio doesn’t use his elbows like Marc, but he feels the slide very, very early, so it’s reaction time and control. He lets the bike come up maybe half a degree, then he can save it. It looks like he is at the same level as Marc.”

Well, almost. “During today’s race I saved two or three crashes, because this is my style with my elbows,” said Márquez. “I know I have that small extra with my elbows to save the crash, so I can always push 100 per cent.”

Zeelenberg likens Quartararo’s riding technique to Lorenzo’s, but the former 250 GP winner believes his Petronas rider is even better than the three-times MotoGP king, who, it must be said, has won three MotoGP races and one 250cc GP at Misano.

“Fabio rides the bike the same way as Jorge rode it. He trusts the front end a lot, more than the other Yamaha riders. This makes the difference at the moment because he can turn the bike better than the others with the same set-up.”

Quartararo’s advantage over Lorenzo is that he can still ride fast when there’s no grip, like in Misano FP3 when the youngster looked very much out of control because he was experimenting with the grip.

“That’s the difference between Fabio and Jorge: basically Fabio doesn’t care. Sometimes he overrides the bike like Marc to find the limit and he controls that and he doesn’t complain. When the bike is up in the sky he never says we need to change anything.

“Several corners were very slippery this weekend, especially turns one, two and four. Jorge struggled with that in the past because he wanted the bike to be smooth and behave the way he wanted, without any movements. Fabio doesn’t care about that and he doesn’t care if one corner is slippery, because he just keeps that in mind and he’s able to get the best out of that corner even if it is slippery. Jorge was never able to do that – without grip he struggled to turn the bike.”

If Márquez had got ahead for a lap or two, it would’ve been game over.

There are other reasons Quartararo makes his fellow Yamaha riders look slow at a time when tiny differences make a big difference. “Fabio has a different height, different weight and a different style. Normally Maverick struggles a bit more when the bike is heavy, while Fabio can ride around that. Maverick gets better at the ends of races when the bike is lighter and stops better, so he can override problems.”

There is another factor that is helping all the Yamaha riders this year. Michelin’s new rubber mixing system has created a stronger, longer-lasting rear slick, which is especially helpful for the YZR-M1, which uses long, sweeping arcs that can burn the edge of the tyre. “The new tyre has saved our asses a bit,” adds Zeelenberg. “Look at Maverick. Last year he struggled to get close to the podium – now he’s had three podiums and a win from the last six races.”

There is no doubt that Quartararo is a one-in-a-billion talent, like Márquez. But his speed goes further than that.

Misano isn’t a fast track. It’s mostly slow, uninspiring corners, with a lap record just over the ton, but there are two very fast corners at the end of the back straight where brave riders can make a huge difference because you can always make more time through a fast corner than a slow corner.

Turn 11 is the 155mph/250km/h right-hander at the end of the straight. The corner is named Curvone, but it should be rechristened Cojone. Let us not forget that this is where Shoya Tomizawa lost his life nine years ago.

Quartararo lost the front through this corner several times during the weekend, but it never fazed him. Indeed his team-mate Franco Morbidelli – and no doubt Viñales and Valentino Rossi too – gazed in wonder at his Turn 11 data.

“Franco looked at his data a lot and said, ‘I’m losing one-and-a-half to two-tenths on Fabio through there!’,” said Zeelenberg.


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This is bravery and it’s also the wonder of youth. On Friday I spoke to Joan Mir and asked him what it’s like riding a 220mph/355km/h motorcycle when he still doesn’t know what technical fault caused his terrifying 180mph/290km/h crash at Brno last month.

The 22-year-old smiled broadly. “I’m young, that’s it; this is the secret. I’m conscious of the fact that ten years from now this will be more difficult for me, but now it’s not a problem.”

It has been scientifically proven that the bravery of youth is chemically programmed into us. We all carry within us the monoamine oxidase enzyme (MAO) that works with neurotransmitters in the brain. MAO levels play a crucial role in your keenness to take risks and seek sensation. The less MAO within you, the less risk-averse you are. And the older you get the higher your levels of MAO. There’s little doubt that Mir, Quartararo, Márquez and the rest have super-low levels of MAO.

Quartararo’s ride on Sunday was immense. He may well have enjoyed a ride like that at Silverstone, had he not fallen at the first corner. It’s important to remember that this was a rookie, riding a non-factory bike, racing perhaps the greatest rider of all time, and yet he resisted Márquez’s pressure lap after lap, with no mistakes, after taking the lead from Viñales at (where else?) Curvone.

Of course, Márquez’s last-lap attack was inevitable. He had lost the previous two races at the last corner and there was no way he was going to suffer three defeats in a row. Afterwards he praised Quartararo’s riding, suggesting the rookie was the better rider over the 27 laps. He also explained how he knew he had to pass the Yamaha before Curvone on the final lap.

“Fabio rides the Yamaha in a very good way – very precise all the time – and especially in the fast corners like Turn 11 he’s very, very fast,” said Márquez. “That’s why I got him before Turn 11 because if I was behind him there I would’ve lost the race.”

Márquez got level on the start/finish at the start of the final lap – perhaps Quartararo had some wheelspin out of the last corner – and out-braked him into Turn One, only for Quartararo to counter-attack at slippery Turn Four. Márquez retook the lead for the last time at Turn Eight, his left boot smoking on the asphalt as he scrubbed off speed.

Marc Márques takes the lead from Fabio Quaratarao at the 2019 MotoGP San Marino Grand Prix, as both riders put their boots down at Turn Eight

Márquez moves into the lead Photo: Motorsport Images

In the middle of Turn 14 Quartararo nearly tagged the rear of the Honda RC213V, which explains why he never let Márquez lead earlier in the race. The Yamaha makes its time with corner speed. And around a tight, narrow track like Misano, he wouldn’t have been able to use that advantage if he had been behind Márquez. If Márquez had got ahead for a lap or two, it would’ve been game over.

Amid all the excitement about MotoGP’s new kid on the grid, we should not forget the astonishing performances of Márquez. This year he hasn’t won ten straight races like he did in 2014, but this could be his best season ever. 

In MotoGP’s tightest era – with Michelins and no factory electronics to help him on his way – Márquez has won seven races and finished second in five. The sum total of his victory deficits at those five races is about half his 9.8-second winning advantage in April’s Argentine GP.

Whatever the circumstances, he is always there, doing what no one else can do. At Red Bull Ring he was the lone Honda rider fighting Ducati. At Silverstone he was the lone Honda rider fighting Suzuki. And at Misano he was the lone Honda rider fighting Yamaha.

On Sunday he became the fourth most successful rider of all time; his 77th GP win across all classes taking him past 1960s legend Mike ‘The Bike’ Hailwood. Only Angel Nieto, Rossi and Giacomo Agostini stand ahead of him.

At Misano he celebrated like he’s hardly ever celebrated before because he had overcome the bad memories of Austria and Britain and because he was desperate to answer Rossi’s Q2 divebomb in the best way possible.

“Yesterday was extra motivation,” he said before climbing the podium swathed in yellow smoke.

 

 

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