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.
The old adage about not judging a book by its cover seems particularly apt after the first day at Qatar. Fans and followers were hoping the changes made over the winter might shake things up a little, but they weren’t expecting a revolution.
At the top of the timesheets in MotoGP sits Aleix Espargaro on the Open class Forward Yamaha, nearly half a second ahead of the rest. In second place was Alvaro Bautista, not on an Open bike, but on a satellite Honda. Bautista, in turn, was ahead of three other satellite machines, Tech 3’s Bradley Smith leading Pramac Ducati rider Andrea Iannone, with the other Tech 3 bike of Pol Espargaro behind.
The first factory rider (that’s factory rider, not Factory Option) was Dani Pedrosa in 6th, over a second behind the Open class bike of Aleix. Valentino Rossi in 7th, on the factory Movistar Yamaha, could only just hold off former teammate Colin Edwards on the other Forward Yamaha. Even Nicky Hayden was just a tenth off the pace of Rossi, despite the Drive M7 Aspar rider being on the production RCV1000R Honda, a bike which was giving away over 12 km/h to the M1 of Rossi.
Has the revolution finally arrived? Has the Open class turned MotoGP on its head? Not really, though that didn’t stop the bookmakers from shortening the odds of an Aleix Espargaro win from 51/1 down to 11/1. The first page of MotoGP’s 2014 chapter is deceptive, as the Open and satellite bikes all have a head start.
At the notoriously dusty and low-grip track, it takes time to get the bikes dialed in, and the factory riders, fresh from testing at the ultra-high-grip Phillip Island circuit are suffering a Qatari culture shock. The satellite and Open bikes have already spent three days testing here, and have both the setup and the feeling of the track under control.
It has been a long and confusing wait for the 2014 MotoGP season to begin. An awful lot has happened since the MotoGP bikes were rolled into their packing crates after the Valencia test and shipped back to the factories and workshops from whence they came. There have been shock announcements, shock testing results, and shock training crashes.
There have been last-minute rule changes, made in an attempt to keep all of the different factions in the paddock from rebelling. The final rules for the premier class were only announced on Monday, and even then, they still contain sufficient ambiguity to confuse.
But this confusion and chaos cannot disguise the fact that 2014 looks set to be the most intriguing championship in years. Gone are the reviled CRT machines – unjustly reviled; though slow, they were still jewels of engineering prowess – and in their place is a new class of machinery, the Open entries.
A simpler demarcation has been made, between factories running their own software on the spec Magneti Marelli ECU, and the Open teams using the championship software supplied and controlled by Dorna.
The latest rule change adds a twist, allowing underperforming Ducati all the benefits of the Open class – 24 liters of fuel instead of 20, 12 engines per season instead of 5, unlimited testing and a softer tire – until they start winning races. But the 2014 grid looks much more like a single coherent class than the pack of racing motorcycles that lined up last year.
Marc Marquez will not ride at the Phillip Island test, scheduled for next week, and will only return to riding at the first race of the season at Qatar.
After meeting with Dr. Xavier Mir in Barcelona today, Marquez was told it would be better to rest and recuperate as fully as possible before attempting to ride a MotoGP bike again.
The decision to wait until the race at Qatar also settles a potential argument over testing at Phillip Island and Qatar.
HRC had been contemplating sending Marquez to test with the satellite and Open class riders at Qatar, rather than the factory riders at Phillip Island, where they are testing tires for Bridgestone. Honda asked Race Direction for permission to allow Marquez to test at Qatar, but Yamaha and Ducati lodged an objection.
The 2014 CBR1000RR Fireblade is once again an upgrade of the existing model: Honda’s flagship race-rep was first introduced back in 2008, and though it has received a couple of small updates here and there, it hasn’t been properly updated in a lengthy six years now.
It’s not all bad though, as Honda now presents the most complete and best Fireblade ever: the 2014 CBR1000RR SP. Both the SP and standard model receive a slightly altered riding position, three extra horsepower and two full pounds of weight loss.
The SP model is further enhanced – quite predictably – by mounting higher spec components such as brakes and suspension. The front receives high-class Öhlins NIX30 forks and Brembo monobloc brake calipers, while the well known TTX36 shock upgrades the rear suspension.
Honda mentiones that the engines are ‘blueprinted’ – the different components are specifically selected to work better together – but this is not shown in the output numbers.
The second half of the 2012 MotoGP season generated a tale of sound and fury: Casey Stoner’s retirement, Valentino Rossi’s pending return to Yamaha, Dani Pedrosa’s late season charge to threaten for the premier-class title, and the coming of Marc Marquez to Repsol Honda, all seemed to add up to a 2013 that would make for one of the most interesting MotoGP seasons of the modern era.
But as the storm raged around him, Jorge Lorenzo got quietly down the the business of being a fast, and perhaps more importantly, consistent, points claiming machine, that fended off a revitalized Pedrosa and claimed the 2012 crown.
Much has been made in the days since the thrilling MotoGP season opener at Qatar of the charge of Valentino Rossi through the field and the pace he ran to catch the group behind Dani Pedrosa.
Speculation has been rife that had Rossi got a better start – and more importantly, got a much better qualifying position – he could have matched the pace of Lorenzo, and taken the fight to him. But just how realistic is the idea that Rossi could have run with Lorenzo at Qatar, and that Rossi could have matched the pace of his teammate? Reality, or just wishful thinking?
When I photograph a race, I get only portions of the story: the beginning, snippets of the middle, and the end. It’s something like reading a novel by skimming every third or fourth chapter until arriving at the last page and having someone summarize it. (I get the end if, that is, I can see the results on the tower as in Qatar. At some tracks I don’t know for sure who won until I get back to the media center.)
Each January we say “This season is going to be great!” and for 2013 there seems to be more reason to believe that than ever, which is how the weekend’s story began. When we arrived at Losail, there was more anticipation in the paddock for a great season of racing ahead than I can remember.
Even with Casey Stoner gone, pre-season testing had raised expectations for Marc Marquez even higher than they had been at the end of 2012. We knew Pedrosa would be fast and win races. And we knew Lorenzo would be the man to beat.
What we didn’t know was how competitve Valentino Rossi would be after his two years at Ducati. There seemed to be a visceral need in the paddock for him to return to form, to be Valentino again. After ups and downs in the practice and qualifying sessions, he would start from seventh place on the grid, with Lorenzo on pole and likely to run away into the night.
Would we see a return of the Rossi flair that has inspired millions of fans around the world? Or would the fairy tale turn out to be a tragedy?
One thing was for sure as we stood on the grid after a very long winter break, waiting to find out the answer to this question: The crowd, even though largely Spanish and there to support top riders in all three classes, was even more ready to see Rossi go fast again than those in the paddock.
The track announcer introduced the various riders, and when he came to Rossi, the sudden rise in enthusiasm hit like a wall of sound. Official attendance for Sunday was a paltry 9,704 fans, but it sounded like all of them were on their feet cheering as Rossi turned and waved.