What does it take to be a world champion? A little bit of luck, certainly. A whole heap of talent, for sure. But above all, it takes preparation: physical, mental and mechanical. That, most of all, is the lesson of Jorge Lorenzo’s 2012 MotoGP championship. The 2010 champion came better prepared to the title chase, and ground down his opponents with his sheer consistency.
Lorenzo’s assault on the 2012 championship started in Yamaha’s racing department in 2011. The new 1000cc M1 may have been visually almost identical to the 800cc 2011 machine, but beneath the similarities was a very different machine. Yamaha’s engineers had made the bike longer to cope with the extra torque and horsepower, and completely redesigned the engine to cope with the new rules. Modified electronics improved traction, while better wheelie control meant the bike lost less time in acceleration. The improved wheelie control alone cut a tenth of a second from the lap times.
It was obvious to Lorenzo that the 2012 bike would be competitive as soon as he rode it for the first time during the post-race test at Brno in August 2011. Where on the 800cc bike, he had been nearly half a second slower than Casey Stoner during Sunday’s race, the day after, on the 1000cc M1, he was immediately within a tenth of the Australian on the Repsol Honda. Yamaha had done their homework, and Lorenzo knew that the rest was down to him.
Lorenzo’s own preparation began during the winter of 2011. Knowing that the additional power and weight of the 1000cc bikes would make different demands on the rider, he focused his training on coping with that. At the Sepang tests in February, while the rest of the grid sat in their garages waiting for the sweltering afternoon heat in the tropics to subside, Lorenzo was pounding out the laps, running full race simulations to test his endurance and the behavior of the bike. He wanted to be sure he was ready for the first race of the year in Qatar. He was not as fast as Casey Stoner during pre-season testing, but he knew he could be competitive.
His dedication did not go unnoticed. Nicky Hayden: “This winter, we got to the Jerez test after being in Malaysia for two tests, and me and Filippo Preziosi were talking about something, saying Casey this, Casey that, and I said I think if I had to pick a champion, I thought Lorenzo was the favorite.” Why did Hayden have Lorenzo pegged as the favorite for the 2012 title back in February?
“Even in the winter in Malaysia when we were testing, when it was hot in the afternoon and most people were staying in the box, he was out doing really long runs. Some people talked about long runs, but he was doing full race simulations, and it was clear he was ready, he was very hungry for this title.”
Lorenzo’s preparation paid off immediately at Qatar. After the flag dropped, the first race of the season started to play out as many – including myself – had expected. Casey Stoner’s pre-season speed on the Honda saw him edge away from the Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa, opening a gap of over two seconds by the halfway mark. But then the tide turned: Stoner’s progress stopped, and he slowly fell back into the clutches of Lorenzo.
Arm pump had struck the Australian, and caused his pace to slow, by half a second at first, then by over a second a lap. Lorenzo was prepared, and cruised to victory. “You saw it in the first few races,” Lorenzo’s team manager Wilco Zeelenberg explained. “What were Casey and Dani complaining of? Arm pump. Jorge was ready, he knew the 1000s would put more strain on his arms.”
Beating Stoner at a track he has traditionally dominated at gave Lorenzo a mental boost. More importantly, ending the race in great shape, while his main title rivals had struggled, it confirmed to him that his approach to the season was paying off. It gave him the confidence to accept the two defeats which followed – at Jerez and Estoril – without losing his focus. Both times, he ended 2nd to Casey Stoner, but both times, he was close enough to be in contention, and he left Portugal just a solitary point behind Stoner in the championship race.
He seized control of the championship again at Le Mans, with an imperious display of wet weather riding that saw him win by a country mile. His victory in France was a demonstration not just of his preparation, but of the strength of the team that surrounds him. On Sunday morning, during the warm up in the soaking rain, Lorenzo was two thirds of a second slower than Casey Stoner. He came in complaining of problems getting his Yamaha M1 into the corner, the rear of the bike breaking away.
Wilco Zeelenberg, who had been watching from track side, talked to both Lorenzo and his crew chief Ramon Forcada and told them that everyone was having the same problem, with the rear breaking away in the wet conditions, and that actually, Lorenzo was much faster than the rest on corner entry. Where Lorenzo was losing out was on corner exit, Zeelenberg said, and Forcada set about helping Lorenzo get the bike upright more quickly so he could get on the gas faster. Lorenzo would win the race by nearly 10 seconds. His riding was sublime, but he had a bike that allowed him to ride with such confidence.
This same narrative would play throughout the year. Though Lorenzo would complain of problems after practice a number of times throughout the year, come race day, his team always gave him a bike he could win on. “The team deserve a lot of the credit, and especially Ramon [Forcada] and [Takashi] Moriyama (Lorenzo’s technical engineer – DE) for giving him a bike that he felt he didn’t need to come in for adjustments every three laps,” Zeelenberg said of the championship.
“That collaboration is so important, five years now with Ramon, four with Moriyama and I’ve been there for three years. It’s a really strong group,” Zeelenberg emphasized. Confident in his equipment, he could concentrate on finding the last few minor irritations that allowed him to get to the end of the race and still be fast.
Now firmly back in charge of the championship, Lorenzo went to Barcelona and then Silverstone and won comfortably. The Yamaha was starting to benefit from the new spec tire which had been introduced by Bridgestone from Jerez, a tire on which the Hondas were struggling badly. The tire had been tried at the official test at Jerez in March, and been voted an improvement by all of the teams except for the factory Honda riders, who complained of a lack of stability under braking.
The Hondas were already struggling with chatter, a problem their riders attributed to the extra 4kg added to the minimum weight at the end of 2011, though both Stoner and Pedrosa had complained of some chatter at the first 1000cc test at Brno. With the rain that seemed to be following MotoGP around robbing the riders of dry practice time, it would take the Repsol Honda team the best part of the season before they got it sufficiently under control to be consistently competitive, though it never really went away.
Lorenzo’s luck appeared to change at Assen. Lorenzo qualified on the front of the grid, with a strong enough pace in the practice sessions to contend for the win, but he would not make it past the first corner. Alvaro Bautista got a fantastic start from 8th on the grid, but took his enthusiasm just a little too far. He braked far too late to make it through the Haarbocht at the end of the front straight, lost the front, and he and his Gresini Honda slammed straight into the Yamaha of Lorenzo, who had followed Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner into the first corner.
Lorenzo went down, and worse, the engine of his M1 immediately started spewing smoke as it lay in the gravel. The 25-point championship lead which Lorenzo had taken to Assen was removed in one swell swoop, with Casey Stoner drawing even after winning the race.
The loss of 25 points may have been painful, but Lorenzo’s biggest fear was the loss of one of the six engines each rider is allowed for each season. The engine that had gone up in smoke had been fitted to his M1 the day previously and had less than 180 km on it, a very long way short of the 2000-odd budgeted for each engine. With 11 races left to go, Lorenzo feared that this could cost him the championship if he was forced to start from pit lane.
His first instinct was to go up to Race Direction to point out the injustice of losing an engine in such a situation. He was placated by the promise of one member of the four-man group which oversees the rulebook that they would look into whether the rules would allow him a new engine, as this one had been lost through no fault of his own. But the rules were mercilessly unambiguous. No exceptions, no matter what the cause. You have six engines to complete the season with, end of discussion.
While Lorenzo pinned his hopes on the clemency of Race Direction, his team, who knew better, were already planning their strategy. Even directly after the race at Assen, Wilco Zeelenberg said that he did not expect it to be an issue, and that it just meant a bit more work for the mechanics, as they would have to juggle engine usage to the end of the season, swapping out older engines with more mileage on during practice, and only replacing the engine with a newer one for qualifying and race day.
Zeelenberg would prove to be right; Lorenzo made it to the end of the season with relative ease, while at Brno, Motegi and Phillip Island, Ramon Forcada and his team had more work slotting engines in and out of the bike to balance the mileage.
Lorenzo headed to Germany equal on points with Casey Stoner, but fearing that Assen had been a turning point in the season. All through practice, his fears appeared to be justified, as Lorenzo struggled to make any headway against a pair of rampant Hondas ridden by Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa. On race day, things were looking even bleaker, with Stoner and Pedrosa leaving Lorenzo for dead and building up a lead of nearly 15 seconds. But fate, or perhaps an excess of ambition, intervened.
After spending all-race long dicing with his teammate Pedrosa, Stoner made one last bid for glory. He lunged to pass Pedrosa at the bottom of the hill, but lost the front and slid off into the gravel. Pedrosa went on to take his first win of the season, while Stoner’s crash handed Lorenzo 2nd, and gave him the lead in the championship again, this time by 14 points over Dani Pedrosa. The luck which had deserted Lorenzo so badly at Assen was back, and back with a bang.
Lorenzo celebrated his change of fortunes with his best performance of the year, annihilating the field at Mugello. He exploited a minor mistake by Dani Pedrosa at the first corner, holding the tight line while Pedrosa ran wide, and then disappearing off into the distance. He rode a near-perfect race, running at a pace within a few hundredths of a second of each lap, a punishing pace which no one else could follow. He left Italy having extended his advantage even further.
At Laguna Seca, the Hondas once again shone. At tracks that go left – like the Sachsenring and Laguna – the chatter which plagued the RC213V for most of the season simply was not an issue, and Lorenzo found himself with a fight on his hands. He held off the challenge from Stoner for the first part of the race, but eventually was forced to succumb to the relentless pressure from the Australian. But despite finishing 2nd again behind Stoner, Lorenzo extended his championship lead once again, as Dani Pedrosa came in behind him in 3rd.
After the all too brief summer break, the paddock reconvened at Indianapolis. Though the second US Grand Prix would pass reasonably successfully for Jorge Lorenzo, it would nevertheless prove to be a turning point in the championship. It would end Casey Stoner’s championship run, and nearly his season, as the Australian suffered a serious and very painful injury to his ankle and the base of his foot.
But it also marked the point at which Dani Pedrosa went from being merely competitive to dominating the MotoGP championship. He blitzed the field at Indy – with a little help from Ben Spies’ abominable luck, the Texan suffering a massive engine blow up just as he was preparing his attack on Pedrosa – and went to Brno with the bit firmly between his teeth.
All through the weekend at Brno, Pedrosa looked to have the situation in hand, until a crash early in qualifying saw him forced to fall back on his #2 bike, which suffered serious chatter issues despite being set up identically to his #1 bike, which didn’t. Lorenzo’s crew chief Ramon Forcada had decided to revert to a setting which they had used the very first time he rode the 1000cc M1, a year earlier at the first test of the bike. It worked brilliantly, allowing Lorenzo to smash the pole record held by Valentino Rossi since 2009, and putting him back in contention.
The race at Brno would turn into the best of the season, with two men perfectly matched in pace, and never separated by more than a few tenths of a second. It also provided a graphic example of the difference between the Honda as ridden by Dani Pedrosa and the Yamaha as ridden by Jorge Lorenzo. Where Lorenzo was smooth and natural as an eagle in flight, swooping through turn after turn effortlessly in pursuit of his pray, Pedrosa was harsh, physical and jagged, stalking like a lion and hurling his Honda about to maximize braking leverage and acceleration.
It would be decided on the last lap. Pedrosa led, but Lorenzo was on him like a shadow, waiting for a chance to pounce. The pass he would make on Pedrosa was phenomenal, sweeping underneath the Repsol Honda man in the stadium section, where Pedrosa had not expected the attack.
Lorenzo came carrying more corner speed than he had any right to expect to get away with – Cal Crutchlow had said of Lorenzo earlier in the year that the data showed he should be crashing in every corner, with the amount of lean angle he was carrying – and was past Pedrosa and into the lead ahead of the crucial uphill section.
There, at the bottom of what has been nicknamed Horsepower Hill, Pedrosa used the strength of the Honda to his advantage, getting better drive out of the corners and powering past Lorenzo, leaving him defenseless. Lorenzo tried one last desperate move round the outside of the penultimate corner, but it was not to be.
Despite Lorenzo’s loss there, Wilco Zeelenberg nominated Brno as his high-point of the season. “Funnily enough, Brno was the best race of the season for me, despite the fact that we got beat there,” he said. “The move [Jorge] made in the Autodrom was phenomenal. It was totally obvious that Dani won the race in the area where they have an advantage, but in terms of fighting spirit, and tenacity, and force of will, Jorge really excelled himself.”
This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.