Having just finished production on the 2015 MotoMatters Motorcycle Racing Calendar, the 2014 season has been on my mind quite a bit over the past several weeks. So I thought I’d take look back at the MotoGP images I contributed here at Asphalt & Rubber and add a bit of perspective to each one.
If you wanted a demonstration of just why the weather at Sepang can play such a decisive factor, you need look no further than MotoGP FP2. Fifteen minutes before the MotoGP bikes were set to take to the track, the Moto3 machines were finishing their second free practice session in sunshine and sweltering heat.
But a couple of minutes before MotoGP FP2 was meant to start, the heavens opened, producing a deluge that had first-time visitors to Malaysia hunting around for gopher wood with which to build a boat.
The downpour covered the track in several centimeters of standing water, making it impossible to ride. The session was delayed for twenty five minutes, starting after the rain had nearly eased up completely. Once the session got underway, the weather cleared up completely, the last ten minutes taking place in glorious sunshine once again.
The changes in the weather had a dramatic effect on the state of the track. It went from being fully wet, with water everywhere, to having just a thin layer of rainwater on it at the halfway mark, to being dry at most of the corners around the track once the session ended. Full wets were essential at the start of the session, but forty five minutes later, slicks were starting to become a viable option.
Thursday Summary from Sepang: The End of MotoGP’s Asian Peregrinations Beckon in the Sweltering Sepang Heat
Another week, another eight-hour flight, another race track. Sepang comes as the last of three grueling weekends chasing around the Pacific Ocean to race in Japan, Australia, and now Malaysia.
Even from the comfort of my European home (I lack the funds and, to a lesser extent, the inclination to pursue the paddock halfway around the world), it has been a tough schedule, and the riders and team members I have spoken to about it are all just about ready to come home.
Nearly a month away from home, sharing flights, hire cars and hotel rooms can be grating even for the best of friends. Add in the stresses and tensions of Grand Prix motorcycle racing, and a lot of people are gritting their teeth and doing their best not to punch the people they work with. Some will even make it home without doing so.
The final leg of MotoGP’s odyssey sees the circus travel from Phillip Island, nearly halfway to the South Pole, to Sepang, not far north of the equator. Yet though they are a quarter of a world away, the two have one thing in common: weather.
The actual conditions may be different, the cold, changeable climate of Phillip Island a far cry from the sweltering heat of Malaysia, but at both tracks, the weather plays a much greater role in the proceedings than at other tracks. Judging conditions, and preparing for them, is crucial.
Ever since he left Ducati at the end of 2010, Casey Stoner has cast a long shadow over the Italian factory. He was the ever-present specter, sitting like Banquo’s ghost astride the Desmosedici that any other rider dared swing a leg over.
There was a contingent of fans and journalists who, after every poor result by the riders who succeeded Stoner, would point to the Australian’s results and say “but Casey won on the Ducati.”
What impressed me most about Valentino Rossi’s time at Ducati was the calmness and dignity with which he responded to the same question being asked of him, week in, week out. “Valentino,” yet another journalist would ask each race, “Casey Stoner won on this bike. Why can’t you?”
Not once did he lose his temper, ignore the question, or blank the person who asked it. Every week, he would give the same reply: “Casey rode the Ducati in a very special way. I can’t ride that way.”
More than anything, the dignity with which he answered every week were a sign of his humanity, and an exceptional human being. If it takes guts to attempt the switch, it takes even greater courage for someone repeatedly tagged as the greatest of all time to admit failure.
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.