Ever since he left Ducati at the end of 2010, Casey Stoner has cast a long shadow over the Italian factory. He was the ever-present specter, sitting like Banquo’s ghost astride the Desmosedici that any other rider dared swing a leg over.
There was a contingent of fans and journalists who, after every poor result by the riders who succeeded Stoner, would point to the Australian’s results and say “but Casey won on the Ducati.”
What impressed me most about Valentino Rossi’s time at Ducati was the calmness and dignity with which he responded to the same question being asked of him, week in, week out. “Valentino,” yet another journalist would ask each race, “Casey Stoner won on this bike. Why can’t you?”
Not once did he lose his temper, ignore the question, or blank the person who asked it. Every week, he would give the same reply: “Casey rode the Ducati in a very special way. I can’t ride that way.”
More than anything, the dignity with which he answered every week were a sign of his humanity, and an exceptional human being. If it takes guts to attempt the switch, it takes even greater courage for someone repeatedly tagged as the greatest of all time to admit failure.
Will Motegi turn into another Marc Marquez show? Not on the evidence of the first day of practice. Marquez made the highlight reel alright, but for all the wrong reasons. A crash in the first session of free practice shook his confidence a little, and convinced him to take a more cautious approach during the afternoon.
The crash was typical of Motegi. A headshake coming out of Turn 4 put the front brake disks into a wobble, banging the pads back into the calipers. With the 340mm disks being compulsory at Motegi, there was enough mass there to push the pads and pistons a long way back into the calipers indeed.
Marquez arrived at Turn 5 to find he had no front brake, and started pumping his front brake lever frantically. By the time the front brake started to bite, it was too late to do much good. With the wall approaching fast, Marquez decided to abandon ship, jumping off the bike in the gravel trap.
Arriving at a corner at 260 km/h to find he had no brakes had been “a bit frightening,” Marquez said. In the afternoon, he had left himself a little bit more margin for error, but that meant he had not matched the pace of the fast guys: Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa, the surprising Stefan Bradl, Andrea Dovizioso and Valentino Rossi.
Given Marc Marquez’s dominance of the 2014 MotoGP championship, the question is not if, but when he will wrap up his second title in a row.
His original aim had been to win the title in front of his home crowd at Aragon, but crashes at Misano, and then Aragon, put an end to that idea.
With a massive lead in the championship, Marquez heads to the flyaway races with his primary aim shifted from winning at all costs, to making sure he returns to Spain and the final round of the series with the title already safely under his belt.
Motegi is the first opportunity for Marquez to take the title, and wrapping it up there would please his HRC bosses, as the circuit is owned by Honda and operated by a subsidiary.
But it is not a simple question of turning up and finishing, the reigning champion will have to ensure his rivals do not gain too much back on him if he is to lift the crown there.
What a difference a day makes. “There is no way to fight with the factory Hondas,” Valentino Rossi had said on Saturday. Within a few laps of the start, it turned out that it was not just possible to fight with the Hondas, but to get them in over their heads, and struggling to hold off the Yamaha onslaught.
By the time the checkered flag dropped, the factory Hondas were gone, the first RC213V across the line the LCR of Stefan Bradl, nearly twelve seconds behind the winner, Jorge Lorenzo on the factory M1.
What changed? The weather. Cooler temperatures at the start of the race meant the Hondas struggled to get the hard rear tire to work. The hard rear was never an option for the Yamahas, but the softer rear was still working just fine. From the start, Jorge Lorenzo, Valentino Rossi and the surprising Pol Espargaro were pushing the factory Hondas hard.
All of a sudden we had a race on our hands. When the rain came, the excitement stepped up another notch. In the end, strategy and the ability to keep a cool head prevailed. The factory Hondas came up short on both accounts at Aragon.
Is Marc Marquez’s season going downhill? You might be tempted to say so, if you judged it by the last three races alone. After utterly dominating the first half of the season, Marquez has won only a single race in the last three outings, finishing a distant fourth in Brno, and crashing out of second place at Misano, before remounting to score a single solitary point.
Look at practice and qualifying at Aragon, however, and Marquez appears to have seized the initiative once again. He had to suffer a Ducati ahead of him on Friday, but on Saturday, he was back to crushing the opposition. Fastest in both sessions of free practice, then smashing the pole record twice. This is a man on a mission. He may not be able to wrap up the title here, but he can at least win.
The way Marquez secured pole was majestic, supremely confident, capable and willing to hang it all out when he needed. He set a new pole record on his first run of the 15 minute session, waited in the garage until the last few minutes, then went out.
Is the Motorland Aragon circuit a Honda track or a Yamaha track? On the evidence of Friday, it is first and foremost a Marc Marquez track. The reigning world champion may not have topped the timesheets – the two de facto factory Ducati riders, Andreas Dovizioso and Iannone did that – but he set a scorching race pace that only his Repsol Honda teammate could get close to, though Dani Pedrosa was still a couple of tenths off the pace of Marquez.
“This is one of my favorite tracks,” Marquez said afterwards, adding that he was happy with his rhythm and he had really enjoyed his day. The Spaniard may have lost any chance of wrapping up the title at Aragon with a win, but that didn’t make him any less determined to take victory here. The crash at Misano made no difference to his attitude. Was he afraid of crashing? “No. You can’t race and be afraid of crashing.” Marquez was pushing to the limit once again, laying down a marker for others to follow.
If the mood in Marquez’s garage was elated, things were different in the Yamaha camp. Though the gap to Marquez in terms of pace was not huge, it was still significant. Jorge Lorenzo was concerned. “We are slower than last year,” he told the media, “we are slower than at the test [in June].”
They had started the weekend using the set up which had worked well enough over the last four races for Lorenzo to finish second, but it simply was not working at Aragon. The plan was to revert to the set up used before Indianapolis, he said.
The problem for the Yamahas is grip, especially at the rear. Valentino Rossi was suffering the most of the Yamaha riders. “I’m not very satisfied,” Rossi said, “it was a difficult day.” Aragon was always a hard track for the Yamahas, Rossi explained, as the rear grip made it hard for them to maintain their corner speed.
The track is a tricky one to master. The asphalt provides a lot of grip, but getting the tires to work was tough. For the first five or six laps, the tires work well, but after that, grip drops drastically. Finding the right balance between front and rear grip, between getting drive while the rear spins and losing it all when it spins needlessly was hard.
As so often, Bradley Smith provided an eloquent explanation. The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider has an analytical mind, and the ability to explain himself clearly. Whether he is fast or slow at a track, he is capable of understanding the reasons, and putting it into words for us poor journalists.
When asked why the Hondas do so well at Aragon while the Yamahas struggle, Smith answered “I don’t really know what the answer is. But there certainly is a lot of grip, and the track seems to allow you the possibility to brake later here.” It was the type of grip that was key, he explained.
“There seems to be more rear grip here than at other tracks, especially in the brake areas. So where sometimes you see the Honda skating around on the brakes, here they’re able to brake late anyway. If you have a look at the race in Misano, Marc was able to take five bike lengths out of Valentino at some points. But that ability to do that is even more exaggerated here because the rear grip allows them to do it.”
Hanging out with Valentino Rossi has its perks. The nine-time world champion has all the cool two-wheeled toys a guy could want. He has an epic flat track course in the backyard of his house in Tavullia called MotoRanch. When his buddies come over to hang out, it’s people like Marc Marquez, Loris Capirossi, Bradley Smith, and a bevy of other professional motorcycle racers who show up.
Playing host to such a party after the San Marino GP, which takes place only a few miles away at Misano, Rossi & Co. seemed to be having an epic get-together. Thankfully, someone in Rossi’s entourage had the idea to film the 20-something riders who showed up all day to fraternize and ride.
Amongst those in attendance were Leon Camier, Loris Capirossi, Federico Fuligni, Luca Marini, Mattia Pasini, Marc Marquez, Franco Morbidelli, Chad Reed, Niccoló Bulega, Tito Rabat, Mauro Sanchini, Pecco Bagnaia, Bradley Smith, Andrea Migno, Lorenzo Baldassari, and Miguel Oliveira, though we think you’ll spot a few others in the video. Enjoy it after the jump.
Things look a little different as the MotoGP paddock arrives at the spectacular Motorland Aragon circuit. After two defeats in the last three races, Marc Marquez is looking almost vulnerable.
At Brno, Marquez and his team never found the right set up, and the 21-year-old Spanish prodigy finished off the podium for the first time in his MotoGP career. Two races later, at Misano, Marquez tried to compensate for a similar lack of setup by pushing hard for the win, but crashed chasing Valentino Rossi, and remounted to score just a solitary point.
Marquez had hoped to wrap up the title at Aragon, he told the press conference on Thursday, but the crash at Misano put an end to any such aims. He would have needed a win at both Misano and Aragon, and took a risk trying to beat an unleashed Rossi at his home track. Victory at Misano proved impossible, especially against a Rossi determined to win at any cost.