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With seven races to go, Marc Marquez' rivals for the 2019 title face a choice. The Repsol Honda rider is close to wrapping up the championship for this year, so do his rivals concentrate on trying to keep him from the title, focus on winning as many races as possible before the end of the year, or do they switch to working on 2020, and hope to get a jump on the reigning champion at the start of next season?
The answer to that question depends on which rival you are talking about. Andrea Dovizioso is the closest to Marquez, the Ducati Team rider currently 78 points behind the Spaniard. The title is still within reach for Dovizioso, although it is a big ask. He has to outscore Marquez by 12 points a race to take the title. To put that in context, it means that Dovizioso would have to win the remaining seven races, and hope that Marquez does not score a single podium.
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Given that Marquez' worst finishing position this year has been second, that seems highly unlikely. If there is one thing that Marc Marquez has been good at this year, especially, it has been in maximizing his points haul when he wasn't able to win a race.
That focus is highlighted when you compare the gap to second when Marquez wins and the gap to the winner when Marquez finishes second. The reigning champion has won six races this season, his smallest margin of victory 1.654 seconds at Jerez. On average, he wins by nearly four seconds, a very comfortable cushion indeed.
Contrast this with what happens when Marc Marquez can't win the race. He has finished second five times this season, though by the very slimmest of margins in four of those. At the Red Bull Ring in Austria, he finished 0.213 behind Andrea Dovizioso. At Qatar, Mugello, and Silverstone, he lost out by less than five hundredths of a second. Maverick Viñales is the only rider to put clear space between himself Marquez: the Monster Energy Yamaha rider finished nearly five seconds ahead of the Repsol Honda. Take that defeat away, and Marquez' average losing margin is just 0.073 seconds.
These are the fruits of a deliberate strategy from Marquez, the lesson of 2015. That year, he tried to win every race, and crashed out too often when he could have settled for points. Since then, Marquez has learned to control himself, and although he still can't resist throwing caution to the wind on the final lap. But it means settling for second when he can't.
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Silverstone was a textbook case of how Marquez approaches races. At first he tried to escape, but when he found he couldn't shake off Alex Rins, he concentrated on cutting down the field to maximize the points he could score. "My strategy was not to make the best strategy to win the race," he told the press conference after the race. "It was just to make the best strategy to make the front group smaller. Because then you can lose less points. I know that leading the race you use more the tires, you use more the physical condition, you use more fuel, but anyway is the target to take a lot of points for the championship. This was my mentality."
This is the challenge which Andrea Dovizioso faces. If he still has any designs on the 2019 title, he not only has to beat Marc Marquez in the remaining races, he somehow has to engineer it so that other riders finish ahead of the Repsol Honda rider as well. He has to try to bunch up the field and keep the leading group large enough to give himself a chance of putting other riders between him and Marc Marquez.
That suits Dovizioso's natural style. The Ducati rider is a calculating rider who always embarks on each race with a plan. That plan usually involves trying to slow the race up so he can take care of his tires and preserve the best of their performance until the end.
There is a risk involved with that strategy, as Dovizioso found out at Mugello. There, he tried to hold up the group at the front, with some success. A group of six riders formed at the front, consisting of Dovizioso and Marquez, Danilo Petrucci, Jack Miller, Alex Rins, and Cal Crutchlow. Miller crashed out and Crutchlow lost touch as he struggled with rear grip, winnowing the group down to four riders.
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Dovizioso's plan was to attack on the final lap, but an aggressive counter-attack by teammate Petrucci forced him to sit up just as he was attempting to pass Marquez through San Donato, the first corner. Suddenly, he found himself behind both Petrucci and Marquez, and having to worry about Alex Rins behind him.
"I did a good strategy, I think," the Italian reflected after the race. "I wanted to be first in the last lap from the first corner, but Danilo overtook us very aggressively. I had to pick up the bike and Marc again closed the door and I had to release the throttle. I lost position." The risk of a taking a larger group of riders to the line is that you can't control what order the group is going to cross it in. The only small mercy for Dovizioso was that he only lost 4 points, and not more.
Still, a large group is the only strategy left for Dovizioso if he is to try to close the gap to Marquez. And the prospects of creating a large group are looking rosier as the season goes on. There are more competitive riders now than there were in the first half of the year, as bikes improve and the rookies adapt to MotoGP™.
Chief among the threats have been Fabio Quartararo and Alex Rins. That the Suzuki Ecstar rider would be quick is no surprise: the Suzuki GSX-RR made a huge step forward in the middle of last year, and has gone from strength to strength since then.
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The bike is now good enough to win races, as Alex Rins demonstrated in Texas and at Silverstone. Victory at the Circuit of the Americas might be put down to a little bit of luck – Marc Marquez crashed out of a comfortable lead, his only mistake of the season so far, and a sign that the Honda RC213V is still not an easy bike to ride – but Rins' win in Silverstone was won in a straight and open fight.
How good is the Suzuki? "That Suzuki can turn on a dime piece," was Jack Miller's assessment at Mugello. "I mean, the chassis is unreal, you saw today. The engine ain't the best, but it's not bad either. But the chassis and the tire consumption looks really good. I said to the boys, it was kind of hard to sit behind [Alex Rins], because he seemed to be able to put his bike wherever he wanted to. He'd be right on the left side and be, 'I'm going in there', and be able to just do it." With a Suzuki that strong, Alex Rins should be up at the front at most of the coming rounds.
If the performance of Rins and Suzuki was expected, what Fabio Quartararo has done was anything but. The Frenchman had cruised his way through the preseason, then made waves in the early rounds of the season. After the heartbreak of a mechanical issue in Jerez, the Petronas Yamaha SRT rider has gone from strength to strength. He took his first podium at Barcelona, and then followed it up with two more at Assen and the Red Bull Ring. He has also had three poles and is a front row regular.
It seems only a matter of time before the young Frenchman bags his first win. Whether that comes this year or not, he can be relied upon to be a regular fixture in the lead group at most races for the rest of the year.
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So good has Quartararo been that he has stolen the thunder of the factory Yamaha riders. But it is worth reminding ourselves that the Frenchman is still only eighth in the championship, behind the two Monster Energy Yamaha riders. Maverick Viñales sits in fifth, 26 points ahead of Quartararo, while Valentino Rossi is sixth, two points behind his teammate. All eyes might be on the Petronas Yamaha SRT rider, but it is Viñales who was the only Yamaha rider to win a race so far this season.
Despite being separated by just two points, Viñales and Rossi are taking very different approaches to the remainder of the 2019 season. For the Spaniard, the focus is on trying to score as many points as possible in the last seven races, despite the fact he trails Marc Marquez by 132 points and has almost been ruled out mathematically from title contention. Rossi, on the other hand, is looking ahead to 2020, and trying to lay the groundwork for a more successful season next year.
The Doctor has a point. The 2019 Yamaha M1 is a much better motorcycle than the 2018 bike was, Yamaha having added some weight to the crankshaft of this year's engine, making it much less aggressive on the throttle and easier on the tyres. But the bike's more docile nature has come at the expense of top-end horsepower, and the bike is down on top speed. Where the Suzuki is within three or four km/h of the Ducati and Honda, the Yamaha is 10 km/h or more slower at most tracks. It is hard to make up that kind of deficit in the corners.
The Yamaha's speed deficit is also a reason for optimism, however. Sure, the bike is a bunch slower on the straights, but three of the four Yamaha riders have amassed one win, nine podiums, and four pole positions between them. If the bike is this competitive when it is down on power, just imagine how good it will be if Yamaha find some more horsepower for 2020.
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There is reason for hope for the latter half of the season as well. At the Misano test a couple of weeks ago, both Rossi and Viñales tested a carbon-fibre swingarm and a new 'double-barrelled' exhaust along the same lines as the Suzuki. The new swingarm can help with tyre life, while the new exhaust could help eke a couple more ponies out of the inline four engine. They also retried the new seat unit, which allows the rider to move around a little more on the bike.
All of these parts could be used this year. And coming up are a few tracks which have historically ben very good for the Yamaha. Both Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales have been competitive at Aragon, Viñales finished on the podium in Thailand last year, a quarter of a second behind the winner, Marc Marquez, Rossi led the race in Sepang until he crashed out, and Viñales won at Phillip Island, a Yamaha track if ever there was one.
Does this mean that Maverick Viñales or Valentino Rossi still have a realistic shot at the title in 2019? No, though you can never rule anything out until the chequered flag falls at Valencia. But given the gradual improvement of the Monster Energy Yamaha over the 2019 season, and the remarkable rise of Fabio Quartararo on the Petronas Yamaha SRT bike, Yamaha can create all sorts of problems for Marc Marquez before we get to Valencia.
Marc Marquez has a comfortable lead in the Championship going into Misano, and the most reasonable scenario is that he wraps up the title in Motegi, in front of Honda senior management. But as the field gets ever tighter towards the end of the season, it is far from a foregone conclusion. There is still a lot of racing left to be done in 2019. And if the first part of the season is to be a guide, it should be thrilling to watch.
Read more of David's work on motomatters.com.
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