The last two races have followed a familiar pattern. On Friday and Saturday, Jorge Lorenzo has laid down a scorching pace, which his rivals – and more importantly, his teammate and rival for the 2015 MotoGP title, Valentino Rossi – have been unable to follow.
Lorenzo’s name was penciled onto the winner’s trophy, and his grip on the MotoGP class looked secure.
Then on Sunday, everything changed. The weather gods intervened, rain lashed down at Silverstone, then started and stopped at Misano, throwing the race into disarray. Both times, Valentino Rossi handled the conditions better than Lorenzo, gaining big points in both races.
At Silverstone, Rossi won comfortably, while Jorge Lorenzo struggled home in fourth. At Misano, Rossi rode a tactically poor race, but still managed to come home in fifth. Lorenzo got caught out by the pace of Scott Redding, failing to understand that the Marc VDS rider had already been out for several laps and had his tires up to temperature and his brain up to speed.
The Movistar Yamaha rider tried to stay with Redding, and paid the price when he turned left after a long series of rights, crashing out and scoring zero points.
What do we have at Aragon? Another weekend where Lorenzo is dominating, Marc Márquez his only clear rival, with Dani Pedrosa there as a dark horse.
Valentino Rossi, meanwhile, is struggling with tire degradation, the performance of the tires dropping in the heat. Rossi could lose a big handful of points to Lorenzo on Sunday, if he is unable to match the pace of the top three.
He really needs a bit of a miracle, either in the shape of rain, or in the form of colder temperatures.
What’s the value of testing? Judging by Jorge Lorenzo’s time on Friday – a second under the race lap record, and three tenths off the outright lap record – you would have to say that it’s good at least for a day’s worth of practice.
The Movistar Yamahas came to the Motorland Aragon circuit having tested here twice, once after Barcelona, once before Misano. The test in September allowed them to find a strong set up for this weekend, one which works well, as Lorenzo’s blistering lap time in the afternoon showed so clearly.
Though Lorenzo set his time, as Valentino Rossi put it, in “a real time attack, 100%,” it was one lap in a series of four, three of which were quicker than anyone else. It was perhaps not so much an early attempt at a qualifying lap as it was simulating the start of the race.
Thursday Summary at Aragon: Being Fastest vs. Finishing First, And Advice for Young Riders from a Moto2 Champion
When different riders agree on a subject, it is worth listening. Summing up the 2015 championship, both Marc Márquez and Andrea Dovizioso independently came to the same conclusion.
When asked in the press conference who was stronger, Valentino Rossi or Jorge Lorenzo, Marc Márquez explained that it wasn’t as simple as that.
“It’s difficult to say,” Márquez said. “If you ask me, I would say Jorge is faster because his speed is really good. On the other side, Valentino is doing his 100% and he always finishes in front these last two races.”
Earlier in the day, Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso had been asked if he could become one of the wild cards which could help decide the championship.
“In a normal situation, it’s quite difficult. But not impossible,” Dovizioso replied. But the championship was far from decided, Dovizioso went on to add.
“I think that the points gap between Valentino and Lorenzo is quite big now, and Valentino is really good at managing the points. But I think Lorenzo has the speed to fight and to gain the points. Still there a lot of races left. I think he has the speed and is strong enough thinking about himself to try to win the race, and anything can happen.”
Dovizioso and Márquez echo a broadly-held opinion in the paddock: that Jorge Lorenzo is the faster of the two, but Valentino Rossi is the man who finds a way to cross the line first.
From the coast to the high plains. From the hubbub of a string of seaside resorts along the Adriatic Riviera to the vast unspoiled mountains and hills of Baja Aragon. From the green and fertile Po basin to the arid olive orchards and vineyards of the Maestrazgo.
Contrasts don’t get much greater than between Misano in Italy and Motorland Aragon in Spain.
The tracks, too, are very different. Misano is fairly slow, with a lot of tight first gear corners. Aragon is much faster, with some tighter sections, but a couple of seriously fast and flowing corners.
Misano is pretty much flat as a pancake, where Aragon has its own version of Laguna Seca’s Corkscrew, though not quite so precipitous, and a long, fast downhill back straight leading to a long double-apex left hander and a climb uphill to the finish.
The scenery may change, but the storyline in MotoGP remains the same. The championship remains a head-to-head battle between the Movistar Yamaha men, much as it has been since Le Mans.
After Misano, the ball is very much back in Valentino Rossi’s court, having extended his lead over Jorge Lorenzo to 23 points.
He will need that cushion, as the championship now arrives at Aragon, a circuit where Lorenzo arrives as a clear favorite, having had some strong results here in the past. Rossi, meanwhile, is at one of his worst tracks, Aragon being one of just two tracks where the Italian has never won, Austin being the other.
Saturday Summary at Misano: The Prospect of a Furious Fight, Mind Games That Weren’t, & Three-Stop Strategies
Remember Brno? A scintillating qualifying left Jorge Lorenzo on pole, with Marc Márquez beside him and Valentino Rossi filling out the front row. Race pace for the three was very similar, and the fans were left with the mouthwatering prospect of a thrilling race on Sunday. They were disappointed.
Jorge Lorenzo surged to the lead off the line, shook off Marc Márquez, disappeared into the distance, and won comfortably. The battle royal promised by free practice never materialized, and we were all left with a hollow feeling of disappointment, no matter how brilliant Lorenzo’s victory was.
Hence my reluctance to play up the prospect of a good race at Misano. The ingredients are the same. The same three riders on the front row, in the same order.
The trouble with raised expectations is that they are so often trumped by reality. After all the hype about Misano’s new surface, there was much puzzlement among the MotoGP riders, and among the teams.
Danny Kent’s reaction after Moto3 practice was typical. “Having heard so many people say that it’s two seconds a lap quicker than last year… I’d love to know where I can find two seconds!” So much had been expected that it could only ever end in disappointment.
That’s not to say the surface was poor. Praise for the new track was universal, and the times were definitely quick. In Moto3, Danny Kent beat the race lap record.
In Moto2, Tito Rabat was over a tenth quicker than the existing pole record. And Jorge Lorenzo managed the same feat in MotoGP, breaking the existing pole record by a few hundredths.
To do so on a Friday, when the track is still relatively dusty, and fairly green (new and not yet worn in), means the track really is a lot quicker, and times will probably drop quickly on Saturday, once the riders start to turn up the wick.
There was a sense of eager anticipation at Misano on Thursday. For the past five years, the riders have complained more and more of the poor surface, of bumps, of a lack of grip, and of asphalt polished as smooth as pebbles on a beach.
The new surface is a vast improvement, incredibly grippy, most of the bumps ironed out and fresh dark asphalt ready to welcome sticky rubber. Racing at Misano will be a much more rewarding experience than it has been in the past.
Just how much better is the new surface? Aleix Espargaro said that the Suzukis had lapped a second under the lap record, while Marc Márquez had been untouchable, lapping “nearly three seconds under the record.”
That seemed almost improbably fast, and a quick survey among the rest of the paddock suggested Márquez’s time was not quite that quick, but at 1’31.9 impressive nonetheless.
The key to success in motorcycle racing is in finding advantage wherever you can, and exploiting it to the fullest. If you are stronger in acceleration than your rivals, then you make sure you get out of the corner first and leave them for dead down the straight.
If you are stronger in braking, then you wait, not just until you see God, as the old racing adage has it, but until you have seen every deity imagined by humanity since the dawn of time before slamming on the anchors.
If you can turn tighter, you grab the inside line and push the other guy wide. You take what is on the table, and seize it with both hands.
So what about when you are racing in front of your home crowd? Do the cheers of your home fans push you to even greater heights? Does being willed on by tens of thousands of adoring fans spur you into taking more risks, trying harder, riding faster?
Going on the number of times that an Italian has won at Mugello or Misano, or a Spaniard at Jerez, Barcelona or Valencia, that is a tempting conclusion to draw.
Until you look at the other races on the calendar, and see that Spaniards and Italians have won in Australia, Japan, Britain, Holland. And that Spaniards have won in Italy, and Italians in Spain.