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Seven Pass Attempts, One Winner


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Francesco Bagnaia took his first MotoGP after a hard-fought battle with Marc Márquez.
Francesco Bagnaia took his first MotoGP after a hard-fought battle with Marc Márquez. (MotoGP/)

First things first: The big news from Aragón is that Fabio Quartararo on Yamaha did not win again, and neither did a resurgent Marc Márquez. Instead, Aragón was a triumph for Francesco Bagnaia and his factory Ducati, as he coolly brushed aside seven separate pass attempts by Márquez in the last laps and finally drove the Honda rider into a mistake of the very kind the pass attempts were intended to provoke from Bagnaia. Slightly misjudging the extreme braking necessary to pass on corner entry, Márquez himself went wide (beware the “marbles”) and onto the green as Bagnaia crossed under him and headed for the flag, first by 0.673 second. They were one-two the whole race, and the win was Bagnaia’s first.

Four seconds back was Joan Mir on Suzuki, followed by Aleix Espargaró (Aprilia) in fourth and Jack Miller (factory Ducati) in fifth.

Quartararo, eighth and still top Yamaha, said, “I’m not happy, because it was strange today.

“After the start I realized it would be difficult to stay up front.… There was something wrong with the rear.”

Fabio Quartararo holds onto the point lead after a disappointing eighth place finish.
Fabio Quartararo holds onto the point lead after a disappointing eighth place finish. (MotoGP/)

Bagnaia may be benefiting from changes Ducati made, and which both he and Miller (on the other factory bike) enthusiastically described in practice. What Márquez said about this close race was revealing.

“I tried to analyze where he was fast, where his weak points were, but there were no weak points.

“In all the racetrack he was fast. I fought many times against [Andrea] Dovizioso, and Pecco was the same as Dovizioso but with more corner speed.”

Marc Márquez finished second to Bagnaia at his home circuit.
Marc Márquez finished second to Bagnaia at his home circuit. (MotoGP/)

After qualifying, Miller had said, “…these corners where you have a really long time on lean angle…the bike continues to turn more than before.”

He’s describing the kind of corner found on tracks that favor the corner-speed bikes, the Yamaha and Suzuki.

Bagnaia was bubbling over with enthusiasm after his record-shattering qualifying lap to take pole for this race:

“…when I started in FP1 in the first session the feeling was already great.… I didn’t touch anything in the settings [since Silverstone].

“The last sector I just entered as fast as I could in the last corner and the bike let me turn. It was incredible, the lap time!”

Bagnaia had just broken a lap record that had stood since Márquez established it in 2015. Yet he also said, “Here in 2020 as soon as I tried to push, I crashed.”

Forget Rake and Trail: It’s Grip, Grip, and Grip

Why this difference in one year? Forget all that old-timer talk about finally getting rake and trail perfect. As American race engineer Erv Kanemoto proved with his first “adjustable bike” in 1977, the only thing that makes grip is tire load. If acceleration unloads the front too much, no magic combo of rake and trail can make it grip. But move the engine or rider forward a bit and the bike stops heading for the outside.

Where was Ducati’s corner-apex grip in 2020? And how does it materialize a year later?

What was learned with the too-rigid bikes—Honda’s RC30 with its “bank vault” steering-head, Yamaha’s 1993 YZR500 with its “chatter, hop, and skating” extruded side-beam chassis, Honda’s RC51 Superbike, and the ultrarigid 2009 carbon-chassis Ducati—was that all lacked front-end feel (defined by Colin Edwards Jr. as feedback information on how close you are to the limit) and poor full-lean, midcorner speed.

It all comes down to what every dirt-track race-car builder grows up with: It’s a lot easier to get a loose chassis to hook up than it is a rigid chassis. With the rigid chassis, every slight surface roughness must be dealt with by perfection in the suspension’s tuning. But the flexiness of the loose chassis supplements suspension movement and is consequently more forgiving.

This is complicated by the fact that motorcycles lean over when turning, so that at 60 degrees of lean, instead of their suspension acting vertically just as the bumps do, the suspension acts mostly sideways, becoming stiffer vertically. With a rigid chassis there is no “wind-up” whose flexibility can act as a spring to make the tires follow the surface profile rather than skipping from crest to crest.

Front End Flex Holds the Key

Just as a too-light front end heads for the outside, a too-rigid “crest-to-crest” chassis steadily creeps sideways in corners because its tires are getting micro airtime.

The solution is not as simple as just reducing the chassis’ lateral spring rate; in 1997 Max Biaggi’s NSR250, which was intentionally given a floppy chassis, showed us that unintended oscillations can develop and become high-speed weave. Max’s bike, as delivered, was unable to reach its top speed because of such weave. Neil Spalding, author of MotoGP Technology, has presented the view that Suzuki found a way to achieve lateral flexibility without exciting weave. And we know that for five years factory Ducati rider Andrea Dovizioso asked for improved apex-speed capability, but to no avail. It appeared that Ducati’s official philosophy was that its advantages in powerful braking and acceleration, plus its unmatched top speed, should have been enough to do the job. It came closest in 2017, with Dovi’s 261 points to Márquez’s 298. It can be argued that a point-and-shoot bike and rider need quite a stiff chassis to controllably handle extreme braking force and to respond instantly during corner entry. For example, it was typical for Márquez to choose a stiffer chassis than Dani Pedrosa. And with that stiffer chassis, the Honda was at a visible disadvantage on long, fast corners with other than smooth pavement.

What are we seeing here? Is a Ducati techno-resurgence in the making? Or is it just that Bagnaia had “tire luck” this weekend and Quartararo did not? Gentlemen, open your fortune cookies.

Márquez’s seven tries to outbrake and pass Bagnaia recalled a 250 race I saw years ago between Kork Ballington and John Kocinski. Like Márquez, Kocinski came sailing under Ballington on late braking only to find himself with too much speed to make the corner on good pavement. Being carried by his momentum to the outside where dust and rubber balls lurk, he had to waste time gathering up his bike, allowing Ballington to easily accelerate under him back into the lead. After the third repetition and failure to pass by Kocinski, Ballington decided the American rider deserved the “It’s Sure to Work this Time Award” and raised his left hand in silent salute as he exited the corner in first place.

Although it’s easy to believe that a full-strength Marc Márquez might have won this race, his own view seems to be that expects more evolution from Honda to remain competitive with a paddock that has not stood still for a year.

Ride-Height Revisions

Dorna has slightly changed the rule requiring manual rider control of the Variable Ride Height systems now in use. Previously, the rider had to choose both in which corners to apply the system, as well as precisely timing the “Up” and “Down” functions. This has been changed to corner choice only, with the functions automatically triggered by normal chassis movements such as brake dive. This is progressive because it reduces rider diversion from the tasks at hand.

Too much technology? Maybe you think there’s a big untapped market for retro phones with embarrassing long antennas? All those purists who not so long ago wanted to “rip out the electronics” and return to the Isle of Man to discover who the Real Men are must ask themselves when the golden age truly took place. Surely not in the 1930s, when the Germans and Italians unfairly added supercharging. Surely not in the postwar years, when first Gilera and then MV and Benelli unfairly built 10,000-rpm four-cylinder engines that left the classic British singles standing. Surely not the 1960s, when Japanese factories rode a wave of R&D that no others could match. Keep on rejecting such “unfairness” and we’re backed into the corner of one man, one cylinder, an Amal carburetor and a Lucas magneto. By golly, that’s just where classic racing finds itself today, with paddock lawyers arguing the fine points of exactly when precise details of this or that technology first became available.

The Ducati’s cornering ability at Aragón allowed Bagnaia to counter every move Márquez made.
The Ducati’s cornering ability at Aragón allowed Bagnaia to counter every move Márquez made. (MotoGP/)

Simpler to just enjoy the golden age before us. We are alive to see that MotoGP has become the most intensely competitive racing ever. Four brands in the top five this time, and all six in the top eight.

Quartararo’s lead is down to 53 points, with Bagnaia, Mir, Johann Zarco, and Miller, strong riders with five races yet to run. Who’ll get the bad cookie next time?

Misano in a week and the US MotoGP at Austin’s COTA is October 3.

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