‘Always faster than me’: Espargaró’s narrow path to glory; more Miller magic on the radar — Dutch TT burning questions

Miller claims third behind Quartararo | 00:56
Michael Lamonato from Fox Sports

The Dutch TT is worth the same points as any other grand prix, but as the last race before the mid-season break, the results in the Netherlands will set the agenda for the long six weeks ahead.

The championship picture is clear: Fabio Quartararo is out in the lead and Aleix Espargaró is the only rider whose title destiny is still his to control — but only just.

Quartararo has few weaknesses, but his bike has a couple capable of being exploited if Aprilia, Espargaró and the reinvigorated Maverick Viñales can execute — and execute perfectly, because only perfection will do against Fabio in a purple patch.

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It’s a crucial race too for the evolving rider market, which is inching closer to its conclusion. Ducati has Jack Miller’s two potential replacements locked in a shootout for the factory seat, and the battle is delicately poised. Jorge Martin or Enea Bastianini? The clock is ticking.

As for the man they’re vying to replace, it’s been six years since his breakthrough MotoGP victory in the wet, and the radar is forecasting showers yet again. He’s without a win in what will be his final year on a red bike. Could this be his weekend?

WHAT KIND OF LEAD WILL FABIO QUARTARARO TAKE INTO THE MIDSEASON BREAK?

Everything’s coming up Fabio Quartararo as the season convenes one last time before the mid-season break.

A winner twice on the trot, on the podium at all but four races this season and at five of the last six grands prix, his title leads has grown to 34 points of Aleix Espargaró.

After his unhappy start to the season the realisation that Quartararo wasn’t just a title chance but in fact the title favourite dawned slowly until it was suddenly undeniable.

In fact despite his understated start to the season he’s only fractionally worse off than he was this time last year, when his advantage was just six points greater at 40 points over Johann Zarco.

You could even argue that his prospects are better this season for having only one rival to worry about, whereas last year Joan Mir and Francesco Bagnaia were arguably still within range.

Photo by Ronny Hartmann / AFPSource: AFP

So what are the prospects of his margin being overturned from here?

Let’s take last year as an example.

By way of comparison, Bagnaia was 58 points down on Quartararo after 10 rounds but gained 32 points on the Frenchman to the end of the season. However, perhaps more pertinently, he came from 70 points down with just six races remaining to finish 26 points shy for a net gain of 44 points, albeit with two dead-rubber races, neither of Fabio really lit up.

It’s obviously mathematically possible, but it’s right on the cusp of what you’d consider achievable with 50 per cent of the season gone.

But it’s not about the score. Just ask the only other man with his championship hopes still entirely in his own hands.

“For me, the problem is not the points,” Espargaró said after last weekend’s race. “It’s just 30 points, not so much. If he crashes in Assen and I win or finish second, it would be 10 points.

“The problem is that he is always faster than me on Sunday.

“Fabio won [in Germany] very easily. The problem is that on Sunday he is faster than me and I need to find some speed.”

There is a secret to Quartararo’s speed this season, and it comes on Saturday. Qualifying well and getting the holeshot or close not only means he can generate the rhythm that allows him to maximise the M1’s potential, but it negates the front-tyre temperature and pressure problems the bike feels so acutely.

Just check in with Franco Morbidelli at virtually any race this season. He can’t get the most from the bike over one lap and is helpless to progress thereafter.

So the equation for Espargaró: outqualify Quartararo and then keep him behind for as long as possible.

How hard can it be?

Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFPSource: AFP

CAN MAVERICK VIÑALES CEMENT HIS FORM?

The Dutch TT marks an unhappy anniversary of sorts of Maverick Viñales: his last podium, having finished second to Quartararo — who else? — last season.

He took pole and finished second, but the context was far more noteworthy than the result. Not only did it come after his career worst performance in Germany a week earlier, but it was set against a backdrop of a terminal breakdown in his relationship with Yamaha and an impending deal to switch to Aprilia a year before then end of his contract with the Japanese marque.

The move was confirmed shortly afterwards, but at the following race in Austria he was suspended and then sacked by the team for trying to blow up his engine.

It liberated him to take up the bike alongside Aleix Espargaró just two rounds later.

The adjustment process on the RS-GP has taken longer than anticipated. Formerly MotoGP hot property, Viñales hasn’t yet finished higher than seventh for his new team while teammate Espargaró mount an unlikely title tilt this season.

But Viñales hasn’t allowed himself to be dispirited. In fact all the way back near the start of the season, at the Indonesian Grand Prix, the Spaniard was adamant he’d unlocked some performance in the settings of the bike that made him “highly optimistic” for the coming rounds. He hasn’t finished out of the points since, but he’s also rarely been on Espargaró’s pace either.

Until the German Grand Prix, when he was so much faster he was bottled behind Aleix in fifth late in the race before his rear ride height device failed and put him out of the grand prix.

Photo by Ronny Hartmann / AFPSource: AFP

“I am very satisfied with the day because I enjoyed riding,” he said, regardless of his DNF. “I knew my last laps were going to be my best because I was managing tyre wear, and even then I was performing well.

“But it already belongs to the past and we take the positive sides of this weekend from here. Even though I feel that in terms of speed the bike and I are not at our best, we are in the fight.

“I’m pleased. We have to improve in qualifying, because it’s enough for me to start well and if it’s just a little bit further, I can follow the fastest at the head of the race.”

So has he really turned a corner this time?

Assen, a track he’s historically been strong at, will be telling. And there’s never been a more important time for him be involved at the front of the field, where every bike ahead of Quartararo is an opportunity for Espargaró to make some inroads on his points gap.

“The first objective here at Assen will be to continue on the level shown last week,” Viñales said. “I am convinced that we can be competitive at every track, even more so on a layout that has always suited my riding style. Also, the fact that we are racing straight away is something that helps me.”

WHO WILL WIN THE DUCATI SHOOTOUT?

So much of the rider market is still to be decided, but the one seat that’ll be decided fundamentally in the open is the second factory Ducati machine alongside Francesco Bagnaia, where the only certainty is that the team didn’t want the outbound Jack Miller.

The contenders are clear: Pramac’s Jorge Martin and Gresini’s Enea Bastianini.

Jorge Martin was the presumptive heir, but his crash-prone start to the season and Bastianini’s season record equalling three victories were enough to cloud minds at Borgo Panigale, so much so that no decision could be made to coincide with Miller’s announcement that he was moving to KTM after nine rounds.

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The situation effectively sets up a shootout for the seat comprising at least the German Grand Prix and the Dutch TT, with the British and Austrian grands prix after the break potentially the final opportunities to for them to state their cases.

Things have started poorly for Bastianini. After romping to victory at the French Grand Prix and getting to within eight points of the title lead he crashed at the following two races and trailed home 10th in Germany.

Martin, meanwhile, had his equal best result of the season in Barcelona with second place before undergoing surgery for carpel tunnel syndrome ahead of the German Grand Prix, where he finished sixth, his best non-podium result of the year. It was also the first time he’s finished three races in succession this season, a testament to the nerve problems that had been afflicting him earlier in the season.

The added complexity here is that Bagnaia has returned to crash-prone ways. Will that sway the decision-making process towards Martin’s theoretical consistency if he can prove his arm surgery has cured him of his early crashes? Or will Bastianini’s three wins and fourth place in the standings be too shiny an object for Ducati to ignore?

With a longer than expected break ahead of us, a strong result could be important sustenance in a crucial moment for the rider market.

WHAT’S THE WEATHER DOING?

It’s an all-important question for Australian MotoGP fans, whose memory of the 2016 Assen TT and Jack Miller’s first premier-class victory in torrential conditions are still strong.

As it happens, rain is forecast all weekend, with a high chance of showers on Friday and more unsettled weather following for qualifying and the race.

The potential for wet weather comes at a great time for Miller, who looked refreshed in Germany off the back of confirmation that he’ll be wearing KTM factory leathers for at least the next two seasons.

Photo by Robertus Pudyanto/Getty ImagesSource: Getty Images

The confidence that comes with a multi-year deal — so long denied him by Ducati — is clear.

Bu crucial too was the work done at the post-Barcelona test, where the Australian says he made a breakthrough that could help him with his relative inconsistency so far this season.

“I feel that confirmed what we saw as a massive step forwards from the test we did after Barcelona,” he wrote on his website. “I‘d been suffering a lot from the beginning of the year really to get the bike stopped, so we shifted my riding position at the test, moved my handlebars forward quite a bit.

“I immediately felt like I had some more confidence in the front of the bike, especially here (in Germany) where it‘s all about turning because it’s the tightest track we go to.

“It‘s been an awesome weekend, and now we’re off to Assen next weekend, a place where I obviously have some pretty good memories.”

A better suited bike, rain on the radar, a Miller high on confidence — the conditions are ripe to send the sport into the mid-season break with a bang.