Márquez Wins, 46 Percent Of MotoGP Field Crashes At Catalunya

Heading to Assen, Andrea Dovizioso trails his Honda rival by 37 points.

Grand Prix motorcycle roadracing
Grand Prix motorcycle roadracing celebrated its 70th birthday this past weekend in Barcelona. Catalunya winner Marc Márquez (93) was credited with leading all but one lap of the race. He also posted the quickest lap, a 1:40.507, roughly half a second slower than the fastest lap turned by Jorge Lorenzo on his way to victory in 2018 on a Ducati.Courtesy of Honda

"The wind is in from Africa." Those words are from Joni Mitchell's 1971 song "Carey," and they go far to explain the result of Sunday's MotoGP race at Catalunya. The spring sirocco—winds blowing from the Sahara Desert and carrying ultrafine dust—explains how this track, repaved last year and hailed for its grip, is so different now.

The championship-altering crash on lap 2, in which Jorge Lorenzo took down teammate Marc Márquez’s main challenger Andrea Dovizioso, also eliminated Maverick Viñales, up to that moment dramatically faster in early pace thanks to a step forward in understanding a motorcycle carrying a full fuel load. Valentino Rossi—the “Sunday rider” who so often comes from nowhere to leading positions—thought he had it gathered up when Lorenzo’s Honda, sliding on its side, took the wheels of his Yamaha from under him.

“I felt immediately that there was no grip.”

The finish order was Márquez, Fabio Quartararo, Danilo Petrucci, Álex Rins, and Jack Miller—four makes in the top five. Strange to say, the highest reported top speed of the race was that of Rins’ “underpowered” Suzuki at nearly 215 mph. Quartararo’s Yamaha was down 6 mph from that (did they leave a plug wire off?) and Márquez’s Honda was 1 mph slower.

Rossi had said Friday, “The track has a lot less grip.” Dovizioso’s view: “Grip is very low. I struggle in corner entry as I feel little support from the rear.” And on Saturday, “We’re lapping a second slower than last year.” KTM-mounted Johann Zarco noted, “I felt immediately that there was no grip.” Teammate Pol Espargaró added, “I had very strange sensations this morning. The asphalt is only two years old, but it was so slippery.”

motorcycle race pile up crash
As Márquez (93) slipped under early race leader Andrea Dovizioso (04) in turn 10 on the second lap, the Repsol Honda rider’s teammate, Lorenzo (99), running fourth, fell, wiping out Dovizoso’s Ducati and collecting the Yamahas of Maverick Viñales (not visible) and Valentino Rossi (46). “It was my fault, and I apologize,” Lorenzo said.Gold & Goose

Rins made the best of it: “We did a lot of high [1:40s] even though the track was dirty.” On Saturday, he said, “Before the crash, I was on red helmets [fastest sector times], but I did a small mistake.”

Márquez, having prepared for the fast pace of his rivals, put on a soft rear slick for the race. “I chose the soft rear to try and push in the beginning, to try to not overheat the tire, to be constant and fast.” At the time of the crash, he knew only that Dovizioso was out and kept pushing, eventually leading by 5.5 seconds on lap 17. Then he slowed into the 1:41s and won from Quartararo by 2.5 seconds.

Fabio Quartararo
Fabio Quartararo (left) won pole position for the second time in his debut MotoGP season. He then finished second, earning his first podium, in a chaotic 24-lap race completed by only 13 of 24 starters. Referring to recent surgery on his right forearm to alleviate arm-pump, the 20-year-old Frenchman said, “Ten days ago, I was in hospital and now we are on the podium.”Courtesy of Dorna

Argument continues over whether Lorenzo’s crash was just a racing accident or a piece of foolishness. Márquez said, “Lorenzo wasn’t out of control, but unlucky for them he lost the front. Lorenzo was on the line, and Dovi and Viñales were out of the line, so the bike hit them.”

Lorenzo himself said, “Through the previous turn, Márquez and Viñales were holding each other up. Maverick closed the throttle, and I moved closer in the slipstream. I tried to pass him but had already reached the turn, so to avoid Dovizioso I braked harder, which caused the front to close. Probably I tried to overtake Maverick in the wrong moment, in the wrong place.”

In the first laps, tires are not yet up to temperature, but the need to get to the front is never greater. Lorenzo was feeling encouraged by his good start and by having the new “pronghorn” gas tank developed during his recent trip to Honda in Japan. Many a rider at Daytona has been sucked into the chicane by another rider’s draft as a result arriving just a bit too fast to make the entering left. At Daytona, that puts you into the bales.

Rossi asked, “Why do we still have this corner? I tried to fight to have the ‘Circuit of Catalunya’ corner, the long left that is very good. But for some reason, we use this corner and it’s like a supermarket car park!”

Danilo Petrucci racing motorcycles
Danilo Petrucci (9) admitted his third-consecutive podium was somewhat of a surprise. “For sure, without the incident during the second lap, it would have been harder to seize this result. I tried to stay with Márquez but it wasn’t possible, and Álex Rins and Quartararo were also very fast. We scored the best possible result today.”Courtesy of Ducati

Understandably, Viñales, in particular, wants some form of penalty for Lorenzo.

The wind from Africa? Hard-working and perceptive journalist David Emmett was in the car park, about to drive away when he noticed fine dust on his car. That is the work of the sirocco, which sometimes carries a fine haze of Saharan dust a thousand miles into the Atlantic. At other times it goes north, to become the “blood rain” of Southern Italy.

motorcycle racing
Attempting to pass Petrucci, Suzuki’s Rins (42) ran off the track and nearly crashed. He stayed upright but dropped to seventh, ultimately fighting his way back to fourth. All four top finishers chose different Michelin slick combinations: Márquez (hard/soft), Quartararo (soft/medium), Petrucci (soft/soft), and Rins (medium/medium).Courtesy of Dorna

Very fine dust is commonly used by rubber researchers to remove the molecular adhesion of tire rubber compounds, leaving only the hysteretic traction of mechanical interlock for separate study. This not only reduces grip—as it so often has in early practice sessions at Qatar—but leads to accelerated wear as the sliding tire grinds across the pavement’s texture. Being new, Barcelona’s texture is still sharp rather than polished. Michelin technicians have in the past been seen making molds of pavement texture by pouring quick-setting dental compound into an open steel ring set on the pavement.

At Qatar, the sand is usually blown out of the texture by the violent scouring of air, flowing in behind fast-moving tires. This makes it dangerous to ride off-line, where the dust remains. But only extraordinarily fine dust can survive the journey of hundreds of miles across the Mediterranean Sea. It had rained the week prior to the race. This fine invasive dust is surely the reason for the “strangeness” of Barcelona’s pavement, and the slower pace this past weekend.

How could the Suzukis be so fast here? Rins said, “In Qatar, you exit in second gear and then you have 1 km (0.62 mile or 3,250 feet) of straight. This straight [at Barcelona] is also long, but you exit fast [onto it].”

Andrea Dovizioso interview
Dovizioso’s championship hopes took a hit in Spain. The Italian arrived in Barcelona second in the title chase, 12 points down on Márquez, but he goes to the next round at Assen with a 37-point deficit. About the crash, he said, “I believe we could have been contenders, for sure. The race was entirely up for grabs at that point.”Courtesy of Ducati

Here the track is telling us about the Suzuki’s powerband. The lower the gear, the greater the rpm drop upon upshifting, so at Qatar the Suzuki’s engine was required to pull from lower revs where it lacks torque. But in exiting from the last turn onto the Barcelona straight, bikes are in a higher gear, so their engines are pulled down by fewer rpm from peak and are making more torque. It was this higher-power launch onto the straight, plus the Suzuki’s known high corner-speed capability, that added up to 214-plus mph. This adds some substance to my feeling that at Mugello it was not so much top power the Suzuki’s lacked, as it was acceleration—i.e., midrange.

Jack Miller added to the tire and grip mystery by saying that, while his own rear tire was slowing him, he was seeing smoke “billowing” from Rins’ rear tire during acceleration late in the race, yet Rins was able to finish ahead of him.

Another Barcelona anomaly is that each of the top-four finishers chose a different tire combination and found ways to make them work. In former times, the language of harder versus softer was simple; it had to do with operating temperature. A top rider, working his tires harder and hotter, would use a harder compound. On his more severe tire-use duty cycle, that harder tire would rise to a temperature that gave it ideal softness to deliver peak grip. But today, riders regularly say things like, “I knew it would be hotter Sunday afternoon, so I chose the soft.”

Maverick Viñales
Four Yamahas—Quartararo, Viñales, Rossi, and Franco Morbidelli—qualified within the top five for the first time since the Czech GP in 2012. Only one, Quartararo, finished Sunday’s race. “I saw someone coming very fast on the inside, and I tried to pick up the bike to avoid a crash,” an angry Viñales said. “I’m really disappointed.”Courtesy of Yamaha

In former times, rubber-compound hardness and tensile strength were strongly linked. Today, with tensile strength being boosted by actual chemical bonds between rubber chains and silica particles, this link is somehow broken.

Viñales rarely has strong starts, which puts him at a disadvantage because to reach the front he must then claw through traffic, accepting increased hazard and consuming irreplaceable tire life. “I normally lose many places, but there I was very fast in the first laps,” he said. “We managed it well with the full tank.”

Quartararo, finishing second, has now answered the question: Can he make his tires last through a race or will he fade like other rookies so often do? After Quartararo set pole, journalists surrounded him, asking if he’d try to win. “Sure, if I have the chance,” he replied. “But before I set myself certain goals, I need to finish a race in the top five at least, something I’ve not done yet.”

Pol Espargaró motorcycle race
Pol Espargaró earned his third consecutive top-10 finish on the factory KTM. “I said on Saturday that the race would either be very slow or with lots of crashes, and it was both. In the end, the most important thing was the gap of 16 seconds to the top guy, which is unbelievable because last year we were 36 away.” Teammate Johann Zarco was 10th.Courtesy of KTM

As a final conundrum, there is the trap reported by more than one rider, Cal Crutchlow first among them, that of lacking the power to leave the slipstream of the bike ahead while losing front grip from heat resulting from being in slow “sheltered” air.

The rider who remembers and acts upon all the things he has learned and rules he has derived from experience looks lucky.