The next rider to go under the microscope in our retrospective of 2016 is one of the most interesting of the year. Cal Crutchlow had a season of two halves, but up and down. Here’s how we rate the LCR Honda rider’s performance last year:
If ever there was a time to be disabused of any notions of the glamorous life a professional motorcycle racer leads, the weeks immediately following the end of the racing season, after testing has been completed, is surely it.
Riders around the world head into operating theaters and physical rehabilitation facilities to have more permanent fixes applied to the temporary patch-up jobs done to allow them to keep racing during the season.
There has been a long list of riders having surgery or treatment of one sort or another over the past week or so.
On Tuesday, November 15th, the 2017 season starts in earnest. The biannual session of bike swapping commences two days after the final MotoGP round at Valencia, as riders, crew chiefs, mechanics, press officers and many others swap garages to join their 2017 teams.
It is often something of a disappointment, with only a few riders moving from team to team, but the coming season sees some big names switching bikes, as well as an important new arrival, in the shape of KTM.
So to help you keep track, here is who will be testing what at Valencia on Tuesday.
2016 has been a weird season. Eight different winners in MotoGP, in eight consecutive races.
Tire issues in Argentina caused the race to be split into two parts; a mass false start in Moto2 at the first race of the year in Qatar; torrential rain at Assen causing the race to be abandoned; bike-swap shenanigans at the Sachsenring; and wet tire degradation at Brno.
With all that happening, why would anyone expect the Sepang round of MotoGP to be any less weird?
The expectation of weirdness has also meant that everyone has half expected there to be a ninth winner in MotoGP. Fans and journalists have come to accept this as the new normal, that every race throws up a new surprise.
A ninth winner would fit in perfectly with the string of surprises we have seen this year. The question is, of course, who might it be?
With six of the ten factory riders on the grid already having won a race, and the Aprilia RS-GP still too far off the pace to compete for victory, it came down to two realistic candidates: Suzuki’s Aleix Espargaro, and Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso.
With the Ducati being the faster bike, and already having racked up a win and several podiums, Dovizioso was the betting favorite. But both were regarded as long shots.
The riders may have been complaining that the new surface of the Sepang circuit takes too long to dry out, but about one thing, they are all agreed. It has fantastic grip.
“We have this problem of the track drying up, it’s very difficult,” Jorge Lorenzo told the press conference, agreeing with his teammate. “But the grip is perfect, it’s amazing the grip.”
That was obvious in the afternoon, when the MotoGP riders took to a track still soaking after the tropical downpour, which had caused the preceding Moto3 qualifying session to be red flagged.
The lean angle the riders were still getting despite standing water was remarkable. That was even true after the Moto3 downpour had ended, and the track was awash. The top Moto3 riders were still improving their times on a track which was wetter than at the start of the session.
The same grip had helped in the morning, when there were still a few wet patches on the track. As the sun started to burn the water off, Maverick Viñales dipped under the two-minute mark, posting two laps of 1’59.9.
That was on a track which was still not completely dry, the riders able to power through almost as if it had never rained.
The weather has not been kind to MotoGP in 2016. At the nine events since Barcelona, it has rained at some point or another at five of them. At two more, Austria and Motegi, it was the cold rather than the rain that was a factor.
Even Sepang, where in most years, it only rains once the riders have finished practice, has seen the rain ruin riders’ plans.
Heavy rains overnight left the track covered in damp patches, despite the resurfacing of the circuit, which was done to address the issue of standing water in some corners.
More rain at lunchtime meant the afternoon sessions were done on a wet track that dried slowly, despite the tropical sun beating down.
The track should have been dry in the morning, after the sun had had four hours to burn off the water. But patches remained at various points around the track, most away from the racing line, but there were some spots where the water remained on the racing line.
“The dampest part of the track is Turn 3 –that’s the slippiest,” Scott Redding said. “Turn 3 still had a lot of patches. Turn 4 had some too, especially on that acceleration point. There were a few into Turn 14. The angle that you have most, where Zarco went down, it was just everywhere around there. You had to work out a line, the way through there, without hitting any puddles.”
Is there such a thing as an Alien? The provenance of the term is uncertain, though most people believe that it was coined by Colin Edwards in 2009, after he kept finishing in fifth place behind Valentino Rossi, Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo, and Dani Pedrosa.
Whatever he tried, he could not stay with them. “They are riding out of this world,” he said.
The term has stuck. Since then, the term Alien has been applied to the top four riders, the only difference being that Marc Márquez has been swapped for Casey Stoner now that the Australian has retired.
The reality is that since Jorge Lorenzo entered the class until the start of the 2016 season, the five MotoGP Aliens had accounted for all but two of the 143 MotoGP races held.
The two non-Alien wins were by Andrea Dovizioso (Donington 2009) and Ben Spies (Assen 2011). Both of those races came in unusual conditions. The five Aliens dominated the podiums throughout that period as well.
2016 looks like becoming the year the Alien died. Or perhaps more realistically (and less dramatically) the year we had to readjust the concept of a MotoGP Alien. The season was going very much to plan up until Assen, when Jack Miller won an interrupted race in the driving rain.
Then in Austria, Andrea Iannone finally did what everyone has been waiting for, won a race with a Ducati. Cal Crutchlow used a drying surface to his advantage to win at Brno, and then Maverick Viñales won at a dry but cold Silverstone. Questions were asked whether Maverick Viñales was the next Alien.
There are plenty of ways of explaining the results of qualifying at Phillip Island. Lack of setup time in consistent conditions make the qualifying order a bit of a lottery.
Rain and wind coming in off the Bass Strait, and the weather changing every minute or so, meant getting your timing and strategy right was crucial.
Changing track conditions and unpredictable weather meant that some teams gambled right on whether to have their bikes in a wet set up, on intermediates, or on slicks. Or even on the correct mixture of tires front and rear.
In reality, though, the main factor in determining the qualifying order was this: the temperature in the front tire. Riders who could generate it had confidence in the front and could push hard in the sketchy and cold conditions.
Riders who couldn’t, languished well down the order, unable to feel the front and unable to lap with any confidence or feedback from the tires.
That explains why Marc Márquez and Cal Crutchlow are on the front row of the grid at Phillip Island, while the factory Yamahas languish back in twelfth and fifteenth place – or “on the fourth and fifth row of the grid” as it is known in press release speak.
The Hondas have a tendency to overheat the tires due to the way they brake and their geometry. The Yamahas lean heavily on the front tire to generate corner speed, and on the edge of the rear tire to maintain it. At Phillip Island, it was too cold and too windy to do either.