So far, so good. That seems to be the story from the first day of practice at Le Mans. A full day of dry weather – except for the last few minutes of FP2 for the Moto3 class, where the rain turned briefly to hail, only to blow out again as quickly as it came – means that everyone had a chance to work on their race set up.
With the top four separated by just 0.166 seconds, the top five are within a quarter of a second, and Alvaro Bautista, the man in ninth, is just over seven tenths from the fastest man Dani Pedrosa.
A good day too for the Hondas. Dani Pedrosa was immediately up to speed, as expected. Marc Marquez was also quick in the afternoon, which was less expected. Unlike Jerez and Austin, this was the first time he rode a MotoGP machine at Le Mans, and getting used to hauling a 260 hp, 160kg bike around the tight layout of the French track is a different proposition to riding a Moto2 bike with half the horsepower here.
He took a morning to get used to the track, asked for a few changes to the base set up inherited from Casey Stoner, and then went and blitzed to second in the afternoon, 0.134 seconds off his teammate.
More important than Marquez’s speed is his consistency, however. In the afternoon, he posted seven laps of 1’34, which looks to be the pace to expect for a dry race. Only two men did more, Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo having posted nine laps at that pace, with both men also consistently a tenth or two quicker than the Spanish rookie.
Three races into the 2013 MotoGP season, and the Yamaha Factory Racing team have been forced to tear up the script they had written for themselves after pre-season testing. Their original goals were for Jorge Lorenzo to win as often as possible in the early part of the season, building a lead at the tracks at which Yamaha is supposed to be strong, then defend that lead in the second half of the year. Valentino Rossi, meanwhile, was to finish adapting to the Yamaha once again, and get on the podium ahead of the Hondas as much as possible, to help build out Lorenzo’s lead in the championship.
The plan worked perfectly at Qatar. Lorenzo was untouchable in the race, and won easily. Rossi showed he still had it by getting on the podium and taking second, while the first Honda was Marc Marquez in third. This worked out even better than expected, as although Marquez is clearly an exceptional talent, the real title threat, Yamaha believed, would come from Dani Pedrosa.
At the post-race press conference, as he fielded question after question of his last-corner clash with Marc Marquez, and refused to give an answer, Jorge Lorenzo eventually came out with the slightly exasperated quip: “Now a lot of questions to me, and when I won in Qatar, no questions for me. It’s a little bit strange.”
It is a common occurrence in sporting journalism, and makes clear that while the athletes believe they are involved in a purely sporting endeavor, the media understands that what they are involved is actually show business. The big story of the weekend is not necessarily who stands on the top step of the podium.
Which is a shame, as Dani Pedrosa’s victory at Jerez was both well-deserved and deeply impressive. The Hondas had come to the track with a disadvantage from testing, and were expected to struggle against the mighty Yamahas.
It did not quite turn out that way, the Hondas – and especially Pedrosa and his crew chief Mike Leitner – found the grip they needed to beat Jorge Lorenzo and the rampaging Yamaha hordes, despite the horribly greasy conditions of the hot Jerez track.
We’d been wondering how long it would last. Nobody had started a formal pool yet, but we knew that at some point in the season, Marc Marquez would try something that would generate a mountain of controversy. The question was not if, but when, surely.
It took three races, which is positively restrained measured by the standards of his 2012 Moto2 season. Then, he managed to embroil himself in controversy in the very first race when he ran Thomas Luthi off the track at the end of the straight at the beginning of the final lap.
Yet while Marquez’s pass on Jorge Lorenzo is already generating enough print copy to wipe out a small forest, it is totally different from his move at Qatar in 2012. That was a cynical slide to the left which saw him edge Luthi off the track and out of contention.
This was a dive up the inside of a gap left by Lorenzo in the final corner of the final lap, after Marquez had spent the previous five or six laps making it perfectly clear to Lorenzo that he was hell-bent on finishing ahead of him.
For the past couple of years, it has seemed as if there is some kind of unwritten law which states that any MotoGP weekend must be accompanied by rain. The weekends without the threat of rain or some other form of ill weather have been few and far between, so it is both a relief and a joy to come to Jerez, and have the prospect of a full weekend of stable and dry weather.
That’s not to say that no rain has fallen: this morning, as we walked to the car, we felt three or four large drops, but that was all. From the forecast, this looks like the entire quota of rain for the weekend, and the paddock is duly grateful for small mercies.
A consistently dry track still posed problems for the riders, however. The last time MotoGP was here, back in March, conditions were far from ideal. It rained, every day, with plenty of sunshine in between, leaving the track treacherous and difficult, with low grip levels and a patchy surface.
Though the teams collected plenty of data at that test, very little of it is usable this weekend, with much higher temperatures and better grip. Until the afternoon, that is, when the warmer temperatures meant that grip levels started to drop again, a perennial problem at Jerez. The bumps, too, are an issue, with many riders running wide after hitting them as they braked for the hairpins at the circuit.
If you didn’t watch Thursday’s pre-event press conference for MotoGP at Jerez, it is worth a viewing right to the end (assuming you have a MotoGP.com account). Building off the news about the NBA’s Jason Collins coming out as gay in a self-written feature in Sport Illustrated, my good colleague David Emmett had the courage to inquire about the culture and acceptance of the MotoGP paddock for homosexual riders.
I will let David write in his own words the mood and response to the evening’s press conference, as well as address the comments, criticisms, and opinions put forth later on Twitter by members of the paddock, when learning about the event. For the sake of accuracy though, after the jump is a full transcript of David’s question, as put to riders Cal Crutchlow, Jorge Lorenzo, Marc Marquez, Andrea Dovizioso, Stefan Bradl, and Scott Redding, as well as those riders’ responses to David’s inquiry.
So we’re back in Europe. Despite the eerie beauty of the night race at Qatar, despite the magnificent splendor of the Circuit of the America’s facilities, Jerez still feels like the first proper race of the MotoGP season. The paddock is set up in its full regalia, and all of the hospitality trucks are present.
The fans will be out in full force – or at least much fuller force than in the previous two races, despite the entirely respectable attendance figures at Austin – and everyone knows the score: where the track entrance is, where the truck park is, where the media center is, what the schedule is. Things have now returned to normal, and we are about to embark on the meat and potatoes section of the Championship.
And here we highlight precisely where the weakness of MotoGP lies: Jerez feels like home, and everyone in the paddock immediately feels much more comfortable here than at the previous two races. It is symptomatic of the Eurocentric (and Iberocentric) nature of MotoGP and world championship racing in general that the paddock is so very far inside its comfort zone here. If MotoGP is to expand to the world, this is one thing which urgently needs addressing.