Will Motegi turn into another Marc Marquez show? Not on the evidence of the first day of practice. Marquez made the highlight reel alright, but for all the wrong reasons. A crash in the first session of free practice shook his confidence a little, and convinced him to take a more cautious approach during the afternoon.
The crash was typical of Motegi. A headshake coming out of Turn 4 put the front brake disks into a wobble, banging the pads back into the calipers. With the 340mm disks being compulsory at Motegi, there was enough mass there to push the pads and pistons a long way back into the calipers indeed.
Marquez arrived at Turn 5 to find he had no front brake, and started pumping his front brake lever frantically. By the time the front brake started to bite, it was too late to do much good. With the wall approaching fast, Marquez decided to abandon ship, jumping off the bike in the gravel trap.
Arriving at a corner at 260 km/h to find he had no brakes had been “a bit frightening,” Marquez said. In the afternoon, he had left himself a little bit more margin for error, but that meant he had not matched the pace of the fast guys: Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa, the surprising Stefan Bradl, Andrea Dovizioso and Valentino Rossi.
Is Marc Marquez’s season going downhill? You might be tempted to say so, if you judged it by the last three races alone. After utterly dominating the first half of the season, Marquez has won only a single race in the last three outings, finishing a distant fourth in Brno, and crashing out of second place at Misano, before remounting to score a single solitary point.
Look at practice and qualifying at Aragon, however, and Marquez appears to have seized the initiative once again. He had to suffer a Ducati ahead of him on Friday, but on Saturday, he was back to crushing the opposition. Fastest in both sessions of free practice, then smashing the pole record twice. This is a man on a mission. He may not be able to wrap up the title here, but he can at least win.
The way Marquez secured pole was majestic, supremely confident, capable and willing to hang it all out when he needed. He set a new pole record on his first run of the 15 minute session, waited in the garage until the last few minutes, then went out.
Is the Motorland Aragon circuit a Honda track or a Yamaha track? On the evidence of Friday, it is first and foremost a Marc Marquez track. The reigning world champion may not have topped the timesheets – the two de facto factory Ducati riders, Andreas Dovizioso and Iannone did that – but he set a scorching race pace that only his Repsol Honda teammate could get close to, though Dani Pedrosa was still a couple of tenths off the pace of Marquez.
“This is one of my favorite tracks,” Marquez said afterwards, adding that he was happy with his rhythm and he had really enjoyed his day. The Spaniard may have lost any chance of wrapping up the title at Aragon with a win, but that didn’t make him any less determined to take victory here. The crash at Misano made no difference to his attitude. Was he afraid of crashing? “No. You can’t race and be afraid of crashing.” Marquez was pushing to the limit once again, laying down a marker for others to follow.
If the mood in Marquez’s garage was elated, things were different in the Yamaha camp. Though the gap to Marquez in terms of pace was not huge, it was still significant. Jorge Lorenzo was concerned. “We are slower than last year,” he told the media, “we are slower than at the test [in June].”
They had started the weekend using the set up which had worked well enough over the last four races for Lorenzo to finish second, but it simply was not working at Aragon. The plan was to revert to the set up used before Indianapolis, he said.
The problem for the Yamahas is grip, especially at the rear. Valentino Rossi was suffering the most of the Yamaha riders. “I’m not very satisfied,” Rossi said, “it was a difficult day.” Aragon was always a hard track for the Yamahas, Rossi explained, as the rear grip made it hard for them to maintain their corner speed.
The track is a tricky one to master. The asphalt provides a lot of grip, but getting the tires to work was tough. For the first five or six laps, the tires work well, but after that, grip drops drastically. Finding the right balance between front and rear grip, between getting drive while the rear spins and losing it all when it spins needlessly was hard.
As so often, Bradley Smith provided an eloquent explanation. The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider has an analytical mind, and the ability to explain himself clearly. Whether he is fast or slow at a track, he is capable of understanding the reasons, and putting it into words for us poor journalists.
When asked why the Hondas do so well at Aragon while the Yamahas struggle, Smith answered “I don’t really know what the answer is. But there certainly is a lot of grip, and the track seems to allow you the possibility to brake later here.” It was the type of grip that was key, he explained.
“There seems to be more rear grip here than at other tracks, especially in the brake areas. So where sometimes you see the Honda skating around on the brakes, here they’re able to brake late anyway. If you have a look at the race in Misano, Marc was able to take five bike lengths out of Valentino at some points. But that ability to do that is even more exaggerated here because the rear grip allows them to do it.”
It would be fair to say that Sunday at Misano turned into a perfect Italian fairy story. After being forced to sit through two renditions of the Spanish national anthem after the Moto3 and Moto2 races, the Italian fans were finally able to bellow along with Il Canto degli Italiani, or the Song of the Italians, at the end of the MotoGP race.
Valentino Rossi took his eighty-first victory in MotoGP in front of a crowd awash with yellow #46 banners, at the track just a few miles from his home. It was Rossi’s first victory since Assen last year, and his first victory at Misano since 2009.
But the happy ending to the fairy tale was Rossi’s win was no fluke, and came with no asterisk attached. There were no riders out through injury, as there were at Assen in 2013.
Rossi came to Misano determined to score a good result. His team worked perfectly to give him a competitive bike, improving an already strong set up. The Italian dominated practice, qualified on the front row, and got a strong start. He then chased down his teammate Jorge Lorenzo, beat up Marc Marquez, and drew the Repsol Honda rider into making a mistake.
This was the Valentino Rossi of old, the man that many (myself included) feared had disappeared. He had not. A shoulder injury, two years on the Ducati, and then a year to adapt to the Yamaha had merely left him working out how to go fast again, and get back to winning ways.
That Rossi was prepared to suffer through the Ducati years, then put in the long, hard hours of work adapting his style to the new realities of MotoGP, changing his approach, learning new skills and putting them to use on track speaks of the hunger Rossi still has for success.
Valentino Rossi is unquestionably one of the most talented riders ever to have swung his leg over a motorcycle. But he owed this victory to far more than his talent. Dedication, hard work, ambition, mental toughness: these were the keys to his win at Misano.
It looks like we might finally have found a Yamaha track. After Mugello, Barcelona, Assen, Brno, Silverstone, all places which were supposed to favor the Yamaha, but where a Honda won, Misano looks like it could be the place where the reign of Big Red comes to an end.
Jorge Lorenzo took his first pole since Motegi last year, Valentino Rossi got on the front row for the first time since Phillip Island last year, and Marc Marquez was off the front row for the first time since Barcelona, 2013. In fact, this is the first time that a Repsol Honda has been missing from the front row of the grid since Valencia 2010. That is a very long time indeed.
Jorge Lorenzo’s pole nearly didn’t happen. In the first sector of the lap – the tight section through the first five corners – Lorenzo made a couple of mistakes which he feared had cost him a couple of tenths. He thought about pulling in and abandoning the lap, giving it one more shot with a fresh tire if he could change it fast enough.
He rejected that idea, then went on to post what he described as an “unbelievable lap.” His first fast lap had been trumped by Andrea Dovizioso, the Ducati man making clever use of Lorenzo’s slipstream. But that first lap had made the Movistar Yamaha rider realize that he was not using the ideal lines. It helped make sure his second exit counted.
With Marc Marquez back to winning ways at Silverstone, the Misano round of MotoGP (or to give it its full name, the Gran Premio di San Marino e della Riviera di Rimini) is the next venue to host the Marquez MotoGP record demolition steamroller.
At Misano, Marquez can equal Mick Doohan’s record of twelve wins in a single season, clearing the way for him to break that record at a following round.
What are the odds of him actually achieving that? Misano is a circuit where he has had a great deal of success, having won in 125s and both the Moto2 races he contested here. A mistake during last year’s MotoGP race meant he lost ground on the leaders, though he recovered to finish in fourth. Going by his past record, Marquez is once again favorite to win.
It should not be that simple, however. Misano is what we used to call a Yamaha track: Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo have won five of the seven races contested here since MotoGP made a return to the circuit in 2007, after a fourteen year absence. Lorenzo has won the last three in a row at Misano, and took second when Rossi won in 2008 and 2009.
The crowds at Silverstone certainly got their money’s worth at this year’s British Grand Prix. The weather turned, the sun shone, the temperature rose, and the fans were treated to three scintillating races, along with an action-packed support program.
The Moto3 race was the usual nail-biter, the race only decided on the entry to the final complex at Brooklands and Luffield. The Moto2 race was a throwback to the thrillers of old, with three men battling for victory to the wire. And the MotoGP was a replay of the 2013 Silverstone race, a duel decided by raw aggression.
The hot-hand fallacy finally caught up with Marc Marquez. His amazing streak of consecutive wins stays at ten, the Spaniard being beaten for the first time this year.
In his twenty-ninth race in the MotoGP class, Marquez and his crew finally failed to find a good enough set up to win, or even make it onto the podium.
The Repsol Honda man has only missed out on the podium twice before, once at Mugello last year, when he crashed, and once at Phillip Island, when he was disqualified from the tire fiasco race.
Defeat had been waiting in the wings for Marquez for a while now. Look solely at the points table, and his dominance looks complete. But go back and look at his winning margin, and his advantage has not looked quite so large.
Of his ten wins, only two were by a considerable margin: one at Austin, where he has always been better than the rest; one at Assen, where rain created large gaps. His advantage at Argentina and Indianapolis was 1.8 seconds, at Jerez, Le Mans and the Sachsenring under a second and a half.
Marquez could only eke out victory at Qatar, Mugello and Barcelona, races he won by a half a second or less. At most races, Marquez was winning by a slender margin indeed, lapping on average just five or six hundredths of a second quicker than his rivals. It was enough, but it was really not very much at all.
Marquez’s slender advantage over his rivals was a sign of just how close they really were. Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa had all come close to beating Marquez, and in the case of Pedrosa at Barcelona, Marquez had been forced to delve deep into his bag of tricks to beat his teammate.
Marquez’s talent may have loaded the dice he was rolling, but eventually they would fall another way. “People said winning was easy for me,” Marquez told the Spanish media, “but I know how hard it was.”