When was the last time a non-factory rider won a MotoGP race? Any MotoGP fan worth their salt will be able to give you year, track and rider: 2006, Estoril, Toni Elias.
Ask them why he won and they will give you all sorts of answers – Dani Pedrosa taking out Nicky Hayden in the early laps, Colin Edwards not being able to maintain his pace to the end of the race, Kenny Roberts Jr. misjudging the number of laps left in the race, or, as Valentino Rossi put it, because “Toni ride like the devil” – but none they can be sure of.
There is a less well-known explanation for Elias’ performance, though. Ahead of the Estoril race, Elias was given a set of the overnight special tires shipped in especially for Michelin factory riders.
In this case, Elias was handed a set of ‘Saturday night specials’ destined for Dani Pedrosa, but which Pedrosa had elected not to use, and so were going spare. Elias liked the same kind of soft carcass tire that Pedrosa was being offered, and went on to exploit the advantage it offered.
What does that have to do with Friday at Qatar? Two things. Firstly, it highlights exactly how important tires are in motorcycle racing. Tires dictate a huge amount of the performance of a motorcycle. They are the connection between the bike and the track, but that is a very full and complex function.
Tires determine how far a bike can be leaned, how much drive the bikes can get out of a corner, how well the power delivery of an engine transfers to the tarmac, how hard the bike can brake, they provide a certain amount of suspension, and they pass information about track surface, grip conditions and where the limits of braking and turning are for a motorcycle.
And that’s just the beginning. Tires are (quite literally) a black art. Their complexity cannot be underestimated.
MotoGP fans have been rubbing their hands in anticipation of this weekend’s final round of the championship. The race has everything: a mental Moto3 race to be decided outright by the rider who wins, with just five points separating Luis Salom, Maverick Viñales, and Alex Rins.
There is the triumphant homecoming for a newly crowned Moto2 champion, Pol Espargaro wearing a positively regal helmet to celebrate, while his title rival Scott Redding wears special leathers and helmet thanking the Marc VDS Racing team who have stood behind him for the past four seasons
And then there is the shootout for the MotoGP championship, between Jorge Lorenzo, a man with nothing to lose, and Marc Marquez, who has to balance between riding hard enough to keep the bike working properly and not taking any unnecessary risks, while ensuring he comes home in fourth, something which sounds easier than it is.
There were even a couple of sideshows: the presentation of the Honda RCV1000R production racer, and Yamaha’s annual technical presentation, in which they brief the media on how they have developed the bike to be so competitive.
All that is forgotten. Valentino Rossi’s shock announcement on Thursday that he had told long-term crew chief Jeremy Burgess that he wanted to replace him with someone else has dominated the headlines, as well as the hearts and minds of almost everyone in the paddock. In the search for the elusive last couple of tenths of a second which separate Rossi from the three Spanish superstars who have dominated the 2013 season, the Italian is leaving no stone unturned.
Even the most secularist and rationalist motorcycle racing fan must by now be thinking that there is some kind of supernatural force at work trying to prevent MotoGP from happening at Motegi.
It started in 2010, when the race scheduled for April had to be moved back to October because of the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland sent a massive cloud of ash into the skies over Europe which suspended all air flights just as the MotoGP teams were ready to fly to Japan.
In 2011, on the weekend of the Qatar MotoGP season opener, the 9.0 magnitude Tohoku earthquake struck off the east coast of Japan, sending a devastating tsunami towards Japan destroying the coastal regions, then throwing in a disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant for good measure.
So it came as no surprise that the first day of practice at Motegi ended up being scrapped due to the weather conditions. You could even say that to only have the first day of practice canceled was a lucky break, as earlier in the week it had looked like a typhoon could have blown through the area and forced the entire event to be called off. Instead, the typhoon track moved further east than expected, sparing Japan the worst of the wind and rain.
If anyone was in doubt that Jorge Lorenzo was a man on a mission at Phillip Island, his first few laps of the newly resurfaced circuit should have served to remove any doubt. Lorenzo bolted out of pit lane as soon as the lights turned green, and was soon setting a scorching pace.
By the time he had finished his first run of laps, he had already broken the existing race lap record, and had got into the 1’29s. He finished the morning creeping up on the 1’28s, before going on to start lapping in the 1’28s and dominate the afternoon session as well.
Lorenzo came to Australia to win, let there be no doubt about that. He knows it is his only chance, and even then, he knows that even that will not be enough, and he will need help from Marc Marquez. “The objective is to win the race, and if I win, that will delay Marc’s chance to take the title, but it will depend on his result,” Lorenzo told the Spanish media.
Is Sepang a Honda track or a Yamaha track? On the evidence of the first day of practice, you would have to say it is definitely a Honda track. Or more specifically, a factory Honda track, according to Valentino Rossi. The Italian veteran told reporters that the factory Hondas seemed to have something extra at Sepang, even compared to the satellite RC213V bikes.
Having lighter riders meant they did better on the long straights, consumed less fuel and could therefore use more power, Rossi said, but there was more to it than that.
They were also better on corner entry, especially in the tight corners, where HRC appears to have found something extra. The only place the Yamahas had any kind of advantage was in the longer faster corners, Rossi said. Through turns five and six, Rossi could catch Dani Pedrosa. Once they left that section, Pedrosa was gone.
If the bike is good, then Dani Pedrosa is outstanding. His lap in the afternoon was exceptional, the 2’00.554 just a couple of tenths slower than Jorge Lorenzo’s pole lap record from last year. Nobody else could get anywhere near him. His only rival was teammate Marc Marquez, forced to give half a second away to Pedrosa.
So what happened to the lap times? When MotoGP tested here at Aragon back in June, Jorge Lorenzo was nearly one and a half seconds faster than his time on the first day of practice. Marc Marquez was half a second slower than his time in testing, despite being the fastest man after FP1 and FP2, Valentino Rossi was a second slower, and Dani Pedrosa was just a couple of tenths slower than his test time, set here three months ago.
The answer is simple: no grip. Grip is missing both front and rear, as temperatures have soared unusually high at the Spanish circuit. The track is also dirtier: a car event held before the test had laid rubber down and swept the track clean, but that was not the case ahead of this weekend. The lack of grip has meant everyone has struggled to match the lap times from earlier in the year.