Can Yamaha get its 'miracle' in Thailand?
On the back of a four-race podium-less run, Yamaha has suddenly found itself competitive again and with its biggest chance for victory in recent times at a track that on paper shouldn't even suit its bike.
Yamaha needs a miracle to avoid a winless season in 2018, Valentino Rossi said on Friday at Aragon.
As bizarre as that sounded about Yamaha - one of MotoGP's perennial frontrunners, it was hard to disagree with.
Forget wins, even podiums have been out of reach for Yamaha in the second half of the season, and the best the Iwata-based manufacturer could eventually muster at Aragon was an embarrassing eighth.
Then came the Thailand weekend, and that miracle, at least some of it, may have already arrived.
MotoGP has never raced at Buriram before, but the layout of the track, one half of long straights and one half of slow, twisty corners, seemed to favour Ducati or Honda more.
But it’s Yamaha that will have two bikes in the top four of the grid and, while perhaps Marc Marquez and Andrea Dovizioso are still most likely to win, Yamaha has undeniably recovered to take best-of-the-rest status.
MotoGP’s limited experience at the track made tyre choices a big unknown coming into the weekend, but high tyre wear mixed with scorching hot conditions led more or less the entire field to side with the hard compound.
By Saturday, all frontrunners were using hard rears and Dovizioso and Marquez took over as the strongest riders, but both with question marks to their performances.
Marc Marquez, Repsol Honda Team
Photo by: Gold and Goose / LAT Images
A crash from Marquez forced him to take part in Q1, which made him use a part of FP4 to prepare for qualifying.
Consequently, he only had time to complete a race distance on one hard compound.
That was superior to the first hard tyre runs of fellow Honda riders Cal Crutchlow and Dani Pedrosa, but both of them had time for a second run, during which both improved about four tenths and came close to Marquez.
Marquez’s pace, especially on mid-race distance, is currently a step behind that of Dovizioso, or even Vinales or Rossi.
But the Honda rider hasn’t shown his full potential, having had only one run – if it is four tenths he can improve, he may well be called the favourite to win, but even if it’s just a couple of tenths, he is on level with Dovizioso.
At the same time, Dovizioso is hard to predict for other reasons. It was an FP4 of two halves for Dovizioso, who first completed a full race distance, but was unusually off the pace, dropping over a second per lap.
Yet, based on his own comments and others calling him a victory contender, there is surely no crisis in the Dovizioso camp, and he will not drop down the order during the final laps.
The second half of his FP4 was similarly extreme as he switched to a brand new hard rear and became the only rider to dip below the 1m31.0s barrier and by nearly half a second.
Whether he could've had the same advantage after the tyres got worn was not to be seen as the session came to an end.
While Dovizioso showed signs of late-race struggle as well as dominance, it’s more likely none of those two scenarios will happen and the Italian will engage in yet another thrilling fight with Marquez.
Andrea Dovizioso, Ducati Team
Photo by: Gold and Goose / LAT Images
Dovizioso expected there to be a big group of riders early in the race, and Rossi definitely looks primed to stay with the leaders.
His FP4 run was every bit as good as that of Dovizioso or Marquez, but Rossi never went over half-race distance with his tyre.
That leaves the question of whether Yamaha’s resurgence also made the M1 as good at tyre preservation as the Ducati and Honda are unanswered, but if it did and Rossi wins, Yamaha has indeed pulled off a miracle.
Vinales is not slower than Rossi but, alarmingly, he struggled to be competitive in the first 10 laps of his FP4 run, indicating that his early-race woes are perhaps still there.
Behind this quartet, the rest of the field on paper will only be able to fight for fifth, but it is set to be a super close fight.
Top satellite riders Johann Zarco, Danilo Petrucci, Crutchlow and Alvaro Bautista as well as Pedrosa, Andrea Iannone and Alex Rins all have similar pace, with the Suzuki duo most likely to keep up with the race leaders at least in the early stages.
Iannone: Marquez and Dovizioso can beat us by half a lap
Thailand MotoGP: Marquez leads the Yamahas in warm-up