With MotoGP on its summer break, and the riders combining a bit of relaxation with a lot of training, there is time to review the first half of the season. Who has performed above expectations, and who has fallen short?
Here’s a rundown of how we rate the MotoGP riders over the first half of the season. Today, the top eight riders in the championship, from Marc Marquez to Andrea Iannone. The remainder, from Stefan Bradl to Mike Di Meglio, will appear in another post.
|1||Marc Marquez||Honda RC213V||225||10/10|
Marc Marquez’ 2014 campaign is pretty close to perfect. With nine wins from nine races, Giacomo Agostini’s seemingly untouchable records are starting to come under serious assault.
One more win and Marquez matches Mick Doohan’s ten wins in a row, three more wins and he leaves Doohan and John Surtees behind, and matches Mike Hailwood. Betting against that happening looks about as wise as putting all your money in Cynk shares.
The curmudgeonly side of me – a side I like to give free rein, usually – will point to the fact that Marquez has missed out on pole twice in nine races as detracting from claims of a perfect season by the Spaniard. He has also had four crashes this year, hardly a claim for perfection.
But even his crashes have been timed superbly: the one crash in which he was injured was during training, breaking his leg with four weeks to go before the start of the season. Just enough time to recover sufficiently to take pole and victory at Qatar, and since then, he’s only got better.
Marquez’ real strength has been the way he handles pressure, however. Every race, he gets asked the same questions: does he think about the records he keeps breaking, and when does he expect the streak to end? Every race, he gives the same answer: People remember titles, not records, and how long his win streak ends doesn’t matter.
The important thing, Marquez affirms, is to ensure that he is still close to the podium when the inevitable moment arrives where he cannot win the race. Whether he believes this or not is uncertain, but he surely races as if he does. Marquez keeps inventing new ways to win, and finding new ways to beat his rivals. So far, he is the one piling the pressure on his rivals, rather than the other way round.
When will Marquez’ win streak finally come to an end? Looking at his rivals, it’s hard to see where they might beat him. Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi will hold out hopes of taking the fight to Marquez at Brno, Silverstone and Phillip Island, tracks which have historically favored the Yamahas. But then again, we said that about Mugello, Barcelona and Assen as well, didn’t we?
|2||Dani Pedrosa||Honda RC213V||148||9/10|
Take out the phenomenon that is his Repsol Honda teammate, and Dani Pedrosa would be leading the 2014 championship race, with a good shot at securing his first ever MotoGP title.
It is the story of Pedrosa’s career in the premier class: either through injury or by running into the wrong teammate, Pedrosa always seems to just miss out on a title. Right now, Pedrosa has a legitimate claim to be the best rider who never won championship. It is not a claim he would be keen to make.
Like Marquez, the key to Pedrosa’s season has been his consistency. He has been off the podium twice: at Le Mans, and Mugello, though again, this is perhaps more down to injury than anything else. At the time, the Spaniard was recovering from arm pump surgery which hampered him just enough to take a tenth off his pace.
Pedrosa had problems at the start of the season when his team switched strategy. In previous years, Pedrosa had been strongest off the line and on the first few laps, trying to escape from the front and get away early. The downside of that strategy was that if he was reeled in later in the race he could offer little resistance, as the bike was set up for the early laps, not the late laps.
This year, his team switched focus to the second half of the race, but Pedrosa found himself struggling to fight his way forward early on. From Barcelona onwards, the team started to find a better compromise, balancing late performance with a fast getaway. A little more improvement there, and Pedrosa will provide a more effective challenge to Marquez.
Indeed, it was Pedrosa who has come closest to beating Marc Marquez and breaking his winning streak. The race at Barcelona saw Pedrosa pushing Marquez to the limits.
The reigning champion admitted he knew Pedrosa was faster than he was, and had to change his lines to defend against Pedrosa’s attack on the last lap. It worked perfectly, forcing Pedrosa into a mistake. Forewarned is forearmed, and Pedrosa should not make that mistake again. Will he get a second chance, though?
|3||Valentino Rossi||Yamaha YZR-M1||141||9/10|
At the end of 2013, Valentino Rossi took a massive gamble, firing Jeremy Burgess, the most respected crew chief in the business, and replacing him with Silvano Galbusera, a man with much experience in World Superbikes, but a relative unknown to MotoGP.
At the time, Rossi justified the move by saying he needed ‘a new motivation’. Many, including myself, feared the worst: that the Italian veteran’s decline would continue, and he would call it quits by the middle of the year.
We were all wrong. Valentino Rossi has come out swinging in 2014, riding as well as he ever has, and being far and away the best of the Yamaha men. Is this because Galbusera is a better crew chief than Burgess? Personally, I doubt it. The difference to me is in what mechanics call ‘the nut between the handlebars’. It is Rossi himself who has shown improvement, the extra pace has come more from within than from external factors.
If the difference is all down to Rossi, was firing Burgess necessary? It was, and Rossi knew that before he did it. Rossi needed the pressure of taking such a public gamble to push himself to change, changing his riding style to hang off the bike more, changing his preparation, his approach. The fear of failure has proven to be a fantastic motivator for the Italian.
Rossi’s success isn’t just down to swapping Galbusera for Burgess however. Other factors have helped. The Yamaha M1 is a better bike than it was last year, the braking stability improved. Rossi can brake ten or twenty meters later than in 2013, he says, and that has been a benefit.
The changes to the Bridgestones have also helped, the stiffer construction more to Rossi’s tastes than the soft-edged tires of previous years. Rossi has always favored the harder construction, and now that the softer of the two options is a little more firm, he can use it better.
Where Rossi has really struggled has been in qualifying. The Movistar Yamaha man has not started from the front row a single time this season, and frequently found himself back on the fourth row.
The issue is the new qualifying format, which Rossi has yet to get a handle on. He is used to building towards a fast lap, rather than going flat out from the start. If Rossi can find a strategy to handle the 15-minute qualifying format, he will be better placed to compete.
|4||Andrea Dovizioso||Ducati Desmosedici GP14||99||9/10|
The difference between Andrea Dovizioso in 2013 and Andrea Dovizioso this year is like night and day. Last year, Dovizioso looked like a beaten man, his face was drawn, his eyes dead, repeating the same phrase, one probably haggled over and approved by Ducati’s press department, over and over again. “This is the reality,” Dovizioso would say, as he finished seventh yet again.
This year, Dovizioso is revitalized. The Italian is cheerful, almost impish sometimes, answering questions thoughtfully, and not just churning out PR-approved statements. He looks like he is enjoying racing again, and not just going through the motions in the hope of better things to come.
The improvement in Dovizioso’s mood is entirely down to the progress made with the Desmosedici. The GP14 is now much better on the brakes, and Dovizioso has found he can brake the bike all the way into the corner, and still get it to turn in.
The engine is smoother, throttle response less aggressive, making it less tiring to ride over the course of 27 laps. It still suffers from chronic understeer, and pumps the rear wheel on corner exit. It remains quite the handful. But at least it has one or two strong points. The Desmosedici GP13, didn’t really have any, even its surfeit of horsepower proving to be unusable more often than not.
A better bike, and the accompanying better mood, means that Dovizioso sits in fourth in the championship, with a brace of podiums to his name. Those podiums, at Le Mans and Assen, were helped in no small part by conditions, but the Italian seized the opportunity when it presented itself.
The improvement of the Desmosedici and his relationship with Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall’Igna has persuaded Dovizioso to sign on for two more years, with a radically different bike designed completely by Dall’Igna coming in 2015. Dovizioso is proof that expectations and mental attitude can make a huge difference to rider performance.
|5||Jorge Lorenzo||Yamaha YZR-M1||97||5/10|
During Valentino Rossi’s years at Ducati, a popular joke in the paddock was that Rossi’s body double had sneaked into the garage at Valencia in 2010, and taken the place of the nine-time world champion for the next two years. The rider on the Desmosedici looked like Rossi, and was wearing his leathers, but seemed to have left his talent back in his motorhome.
History appears to be repeating itself with Jorge Lorenzo. The man wandering around the Yamaha garage certainly looked identical to the world champion of 2010 and 2012, but as soon as he swung a leg over the M1 and took it out on track, he looked more like a slow parody of himself, especially in the early part of the season.
Things have improved since Mugello, but he has never looked for a moment like a man capable of posing a serious threat to Marc Marquez, who he pushed for much of 2013.
The reasons for his dramatic decline in form are manifold. First, there were the off-season surgeries which left him seriously out of shape at the start of the year. Lorenzo’s seemingly effortless riding style devours energy; like a swan, all that grace on the surface requires some frantic paddling under the water to keep the wheels of his M1 in line. Up until Barcelona, Lorenzo was simply not fit enough to be able to ride the way he wanted to.
That wasn’t just down to his fitness, however. Changes for this season had made the 2014 Yamaha YZR-M1 a much more difficult machine to ride for Lorenzo. The heat-resistant layer now standard in all of Bridgestone’s tires meant the rear tire was a fraction stiffer on the very edge of the tire, robbing Lorenzo of the edge feel he needed to maintain his imperious, sweeping style.
Added to this was the reduction in fuel, cut from 21 liters to just 20 liters, making throttle response more nervous and more difficult to ride as smoothly as last year’s bike. If the 2013 YRZ-M1 was almost perfectly suited to Lorenzo’s smooth, sweeping style, the 2014 bike (and tires) made it a completely different kettle of fish.
Lorenzo has only really started to respond to the situation in the last couple of races. With his fitness finally up to scratch, he then needed to accept that he would not be getting the 2013 tires back, no matter how much he complained. He has started to adapt his style to the new tires, but this will take a few races before he is completely there.
He also needs some help from Yamaha, and though the engine response of the M1 is now much, much smoother than it was at the Sepang test in February, the motor is still down a little on power. The engine development freeze introduced for this year has not helped matters, making it impossible to bring engine updates to counter Honda’s horsepower supremacy.
The low point for Lorenzo came at Assen, and showed his fragility this season. Lorenzo has had to pour a lot of energy into trying to be competitive this year, but when the weather turned at Assen before the start of the race, it proved to be too much for him.
Memories of the broken collarbone came flooding back, especially the pain he was in after the injury, throughout the recovery period and during the epic race last year. On a wet track, Lorenzo rode like a nervous novice, fear exuding from his every pore.
He promised it was related solely to Assen, and proved it two weeks later at the Sachsenring. In similarly tricky conditions – racing slicks on a drying track – Lorenzo rode a very strong race to finish third. He needed to exorcise the demons which had haunted him at Assen. We can now safely assume they are gone.
|6||Aleix Espargaro||Forward Yamaha||77||8/10|
When I interviewed Aleix Espargaro last year for a Dutch magazine, when he was dominating the CRT class, he said he wanted to be on a factory prototype, to measure himself against the best riders in the world on equal material.
This year, Aleix got the opportunity to do just that, or at least, something close. The Forward Yamaha he is currently racing is basically the bike Bradley Smith rode last year, with modified fairings, linkages and the spec Open class software.
So how has Aleix measured up so far? You would have to say extremely well. The elder of the Espargaro brothers has been impressive on the Forward Yamaha, regularly topping the timesheets in free practice, securing pole – helped by the weather at Assen – and bagging two fourth-place finishes. He has become a very hot property on the transfer market, and looks set to move to a full factory team with Suzuki.
His speed may not be in doubt, but Aleix has occasionally shown some weakness under pressure. Two crashes during qualifying in Qatar soon dampened his enthusiasm after topping free practice for the event.
That provided a major wake-up call for the Forward Yamaha rider, and since then, he has been a little more cautious in his approach. The limelight can be a tougher place than many riders realize, but Aleix Espargaro is showing he can adapt.
|7||Pol Espargaro||Yamaha YZR-M1||67||9/10|
When news leaked out at Qatar 2013 that Yamaha had signed Pol Espargaro, a rider who at that point had yet to win the Moto2 title, it reeked of desperation by Yamaha.
Espargaro had failed to beat Marc Marquez on superior machinery in Moto2, so why would young Pol be capable of beating his former rival when Marquez was on a Honda RC213V? There were plenty of sceptics – myself included – among the followers of the sport.
The reigning Moto2 champion has gone a long way towards justifying the faith Yamaha have shown in him, and proving the doubters wrong. Espargaro has gotten up to speed quickly, and is currently the best-placed satellite rider, ahead of the Hondas, the factory Ducati of Cal Crutchlow, and his teammate Bradley Smith, in his second year in MotoGP.
Pol has been a very impressive rookie, and while it is a stretch to say he has shown himself capable of challenging Marquez, he has proven to be capable of getting close to the front runners. With another season under his belt, he should be a regular podium contender, and a wildcard for Yamaha.
The younger Espargaro has proven his worth to Yamaha in another way as well. While the Jorge Lorenzo is focused on riding the M1 with the wheels in line as much as possible, the way the 800s needed to be ridden, Pol has been experimenting with a more Moto2 style, using more engine brake and getting the rear a little more sideways.
It is a style which is working for Marc Marquez, and so Yamaha have given Espargaro some room to test the style out. His results so far suggest that riding with wheels in line may not be the only way to go fast on the Yamaha.
Despite his obvious potential, he is stuck in the satellite Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team, as the factory team is full for 2015 – or will be once news of Jorge Lorenzo’s new contract is made official. Pol Espargaro fully deserves a shot at a factory ride. The problem is that the competition right now is at such a high level.
|8||Andrea Iannone||Ducati Desmosedici GP14||62||8/10|
Andrea Iannone was another rider who was touted as a challenge to Marc Marquez, having battled him consistently when the two were racing in Moto2.
Unfortunately for Iannone, the only seat available for him was on a Ducati Desmosedici with Pramac, and Maniac Joe, as he styles himself after dropping the Crazy Joe moniker, found himself fighting the bike more than other riders in his first year in the class.
His second season has been much more impressive indeed. The Italian has regularly finished as best of the Ducati riders, and has caused many to question the wisdom of keeping Cal Crutchlow over Iannone. Iannone has speed, and he has courage, but question marks remain over his consistency.
Always his weakness, even in Moto2, Iannone crashes more often than he needs to. Yet here, too, he is improving, crashing out only twice so far this year. If he can keep working on his consistency, he will be a factor for the second half of the season, and if the GP15 is as good as Ducati hopes, for 2015 as well.
Photo: © 2014 Tony Goldsmith / TGF Photos – All Rights Reserved
This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.