Just when you think you “get it,” the pattern is smashed. Repsol Honda’s Marc Marquez topped practice, set a matchless pole time and was then relegated to second in Sunday’s San Marino GP at the Misano World Circuit near Rimini, Italy, by Jorge Lorenzo, who led off the grid, pulled out 1.4 seconds on Marquez in the first lap and then kept a high pace that made him untouchable.
Through practice, the Hondas clearly had rear grip trouble. “The bumps are the biggest problem,” said Marquez. “The grip isn’t great, but it should improve.” His teammate, Dani Pedrosa added, “The only problem is that we are lacking some grip in the rear.”
Despite this, Marquez qualified a half second quicker than Lorenzo. “Maybe for one lap, the pole distance is a lot,” said Marquez, “but I do not think it is a real gap for the race. I don’t think I can go alone at the front. I will see after warm-up and especially how I feel in the race. Then, I will make my plan.”
Marquez added to his aura by making a sensational save of an in-progress lowside with his elbow. “How did I save it? I don’t know. I put my elbow down, and when I opened my eyes, I was still on the bike. I’d prefer to be more smooth and not have that moment.”
Meanwhile, the problem riders has been talking about this year was presenting itself: how to go fast in the first laps after the start when the bike is top heavy with fuel. Everyone faces the problem of how to get the tires working as soon as possible, but fuel weight compounds this by interfering with braking balance.
At this point, the weekend looked like another Marquez win in the making. “Marc did an unbelievable lap,” said Lorenzo. “We couldn’t even be close to him. We are struggling to stop the bike in braking, and we have more spinning than normal in acceleration. That is why our lap time is not great. The best strategy is to follow Marc and see how our performance is during the race.”
Adding something to the other side of the scale, Yamaha finally committed to competition its seamless-upshift transmission tested recently at Brno in the Czech Republic. “Unfortunately, I don’t think the seamless will give us half a second a lap,” said Valentino Rossi. “But it is a big help over a race distance—to bring the bike to the limit without a mistake.”
Lorenzo had more to say about the new gearbox: “It’s like you are riding an automatic. Probably the point you feel it most is when upshifting while going uphill. Normally, the bike moves when you do this, but with the seamless, it does not.”
Then, in Sunday morning warm-up, Lorenzo’s crew “found something.” Later, Lorenzo said, “We improved the bike a lot in warm-up [they called it a ‘critical suspension adjustment’], especially in braking, so we improved the lap time and the pace quite a bit.”
Lorenzo zapped the start, and his first lap was a 1:38.345 compared to Marquez’s 1:39.753. Lorenzo kept it up, turning steady :34s while Marquez, struggling with braking, included two 1:35s in his first five laps. He sped up from Lap 6, saying, “I didn’t feel completely comfortable with a full fuel tank. From the midway point onward, I felt a lot better.”
Although Marquez made some fast laps, Lorenzo’s consistency kept him out of reach. Lorenzo’s lap times didn’t show a tire drop until Lap 26 of 28. The finish order was Lorenzo, Marquez, Pedrosa, Rossi and Stefan Bradl.
I suspect that underlying the Hondas’ problems with rear grip is the interaction of their firmer suspension with the bumpy track, while Lorenzo’s setup, having to be soft to deliver the edge grip that his corner-speed style requires, kept the tire in contact with the pavement more consistently while skipping less over bumps. Setup is a package, and style is built into the rider. Even when told to do so, Ben Spies couldn’t adopt Lorenzo’s style, which is the rider’s security—his on-bike personality.
Why not just soften the Hondas’ suspension? Everything else in the package would be out of synch—too much brake dive, extra control delay as the suspension moves more and inadequate clearance mid-corner.
There is another possibility, as well, that Lorenzo’s style is also evolving to deal with Marquez’s strengths. Being fast is not riding “harder” (are Marquez’s three crashes and lack of smoothness this weekend the secret to going faster?). It is exploiting possibilities. These are highly intelligent competitors, and it is our privilege to see them work this problem.
Championship Points Standings
Marc Marquez – 253
Jorge Lorenzo – 219
Dani Pedrosa – 219
Valentino Rossi – 169
Cal Crutchlow – 146
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