For the second MotoGP weekend in a row we saw a sight that few would have believed would ever have happened: not just Marc Marquez but also his Repsol Honda team-mate Pol Espargaro lingering in pitlane during Q1 at the Catalan Grand Prix, in the hopes of finding a faster rider to latch onto for a tow as their best bet of reaching Q2.
It’s a strategy that worked last weekend for Marquez as he got the better of Yamaha’s Maverick Vinales, not just qualifying better than him but looking to completely demoralise his fellow Spaniard in the process by sticking to him like glue for the entire 15-minute session at Mugello.
However, things didn’t quite go as well for the still-recovering Marquez at the second time of asking at Barcelona – not necessarily because his strategy didn’t work but more because of the character he was forced to try to follow.
Factory Ducati rider Jack Miller knew the game from the minute the green flag went up, actually asking Marquez as he exited the pits alongside him how much he was going to pay him for what came next.
Miller ended Q1 on top while Marquez’s team-mate Espargaro, the third wheel on their towing train, stole the final opportunity to progress to Q2 and left Marquez 13th on the grid for tomorrow’s race.
“If you go out there thinking about the guy behind you, you’ve already lost” :: Jack Miller
“At the end of the day, the first tow is free,” joked Miller in the post-qualifying press conference.
But as he expanded on his approach to such incidents, Miller showed a stark contrast to Vinales’ attitude.
“It’s a mindset,” Miller continued. “If you go out there thinking about the guy behind you, you’ve already lost.
“The most important thing in this situation, something I’ve learned over the years, is that you need to think on your job, what you’re doing.
— MotoGP™🏁 (@MotoGP) June 5, 2021
“If there’s someone else behind you, so be it. If there’s three of them, so be it.
“It’s a free world and if he wants to follow, I can’t control it – but it’s nice to at least have been able to make a little joke about it.”
For his part, Marquez also laughed off the encounter – even if he did admit that the only way for him to even think about remaining in contact with the fastest riders at the minute is to use this tactic.
“Yesterday we were joking in the Clinica Mobile,” he explained, “because I was 15th and he asked me how much I wanted for the tow.
“We were just waiting on someone, and the fastest guy was Miller. We went behind him, and of course he asked me again and I told him that we would talk later!
“I’m happy for him because he finished second in Q2 in the end, but I was just doing my job, which is to try and be there in the top 14 or 15, and not even further from the top guys.”
The reality is, given the competitiveness of MotoGP, the difference only a few tenths of a second can make, and the lack of rider aids like ship-to-shore radio communications to better organise strategy, Miller’s approach of simply attacking and daring his opponents to stay on at his pace is the best approach to take.
We saw last weekend that when Vinales attempted to baulk Marquez that it just became counterproductive, as Marquez progressed to Q2 and Vinales didn’t, starting the race from 13th and losing any hope of fighting for the win with his team-mate Fabio Quartararo as a result.
As Moto3 regularly demonstrates, over a minute and a half long lap, the chances of timing it so that you cross the line but the opponents following you don’t are all but nil, and with Michelin’s tyres quick to cool down there are limited chances to make a rolling dash for the line in an attempt to catch your rival unaware, either.
Perhaps the bigger story isn’t that Miller was able to outfox the Repsol Honda riders’ tactics and more that eight-time champion Marquez and his team-mate Espargaro, who was only two months ago talking about having title aspirations in 2021, needed to follow Miller in the first place.
Being reduced to slipstreaming faster riders is just the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of Honda’s current woes as Marquez continues his return from injuries and Espargaro continues to adapt to the bike after four years on a KTM.
“It’s clear,” admitted a blunt Espargaro. “We are not good, we are not fast. It’s clear.
“And when you are not fast, you cannot do everything by yourself. Behind someone you improve one tenth, one tenth and a half.
“But I was less than 50 milliseconds from first [in Q1], and Marc finished 20 millis off me. It shows how tight everything is.
“We need to be behind someone because we are not fast, because the bike is not ready to make lap times alone, and this is the truth.
“We are living this moment, and we need to get out of this however, and this is one way. But I hate it” :: Pol Espargaro
“Us riders are trying everything to try to be fast. So it’s what we want. But… I hate this. I don’t like to be following someone.
“Because when you need this kind of thing, you are forced to do always one thing, that is follow someone.
“You cannot be relaxed, you cannot follow your riding style or just improve yourself.
“You are just following someone doing what the guy in front of you is doing. There is no improvement on this. Just lap time.
“But this is too superficial. We need to improve the situation. Following riders is not the way, but it’s what we have now.
“We are living this moment, and we need to get out of this however, and this is one way. But I hate it.”