The current status of MotoGP’s silly season? Two down, plenty still to go. Valentino Rossi may have joined Marc Marquez as the only other factory rider to have put pen to paper for 2015 and 2016, the rest of the grid is still in the middle of negotiating their riders for next year. Even Cal Crutchlow, who has a contract to race with Ducati in 2015, but more of that later.
A veritable galaxy of stars may have lined up on the grid for the 84th Dutch TT at Assen, but the real stars of the show were the elements. After the rain wreaked havoc on qualifying, shaking up the grid, it was back on Saturday for two of the three races.
Riders and teams were forced to rethink their strategy, make decisions quickly, and gamble on tires and the weather. It made for intriguing races, rather than sheer thrills like the MotoGP race at Barcelona.
Changing conditions offered the brave and the smart opportunities, and mercilessly punished anyone who got it wrong. You felt for the 45 minutes of the races that anything could happen.
Whenever I have the pleasure of running across MotoGP’s official statistician and number cruncher Dr. Martin Raines, he likes to point out to me exactly why we are living through a golden age of racing.
His arguments are backed with a battery of indisputable facts and figures, which boil down to a single fact: the races have never been closer. Not in terms of gap between the podium finishers, not in terms of gap between first and last, nor between all points finishers. This is an era of truly great racing.
As if to underline his point, the Barcelona Grand Prix served up a veritable smorgasbord of fantastic races: a strong win and thrilling podium battle in Moto3, a surprisingly hard-fought Moto2 race, and to top it off, perhaps the most exciting MotoGP race we have had since 2006, with four riders slugging it out and swapping places right to the final lap.
The winner of the MotoGP race may have been predictable – any bet against Marc Marquez looks more and more foolish each week – but in Barcelona, Marquez’s victory looked in doubt all the way to the final couple of corners.
If you thought that Barcelona could be a track to throw up a few surprises, the first day of practice proved you right. Not in Moto2, of course: Tito Rabat’s dominance was crushing, making Marc Marquez’s earlier reign of terror look like a close fought battle.
In Moto3, Finnish youngster Niklas Ajo topped the timesheets, putting the Husqvarna name at the forefront. That was unexpected, though given the fact that the nominally Swedish Husqvarna is nothing more than a rebadged KTM straight from the factory in Mattighofen, Austria, it should be less of a surprise.
The biggest surprises were perhaps in MotoGP. That Aleix Espargaro would be quickest in the morning is to be expected, especially as he put on the super soft tire available to the Open bikes to set his time. But for Bradley Smith to go fastest in the afternoon was a major change of fortunes, and just reward for the effort Smith and his crew have been putting in over the past few weeks.
His fast time was set with a fresh soft tire, but given that this compound – Bridgestone’s medium tire, the hard being the other option available to the Factory Option teams – has real potential to be the race tire, it is not quite as simple as Smith having pushed in qualifying trim.
Smith’s time, and the way he set it, was emblematic of the conditions at the track. It was warm in the morning, but in the afternoon, track temperatures rose to their highest of the year, reaching 55° C / 131° F. It made the track treacherous to ride, front and rear wheels sliding out everywhere.
The circuit was already in far from ideal state, with riders complaining about the bumps left by Formula 1, and the surface showing more signs of wear. Throw in extreme temperatures, and there is very little grip at all. All of the riders complained of the drop in tire performance after two to three laps.
It is becoming customary for any MotoGP preview worth its salt to begin with a single question: can anyone beat Marc Marquez this weekend? That same question was put to the riders during the pre-event press conference, to which Valentino Rossi gave the most obvious answer. Of course it was possible, he said.
“It is nothing special. What you have to do is do your maximum and improve your level.” The only trouble is, every time Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, or Dani Pedrosa improve their level, so does Marc Marquez. But it is still possible, Rossi believes. “We are not very far. It is not easy, but nothing special.”
Barcelona, like Mugello, is one of the tracks where Marquez is perhaps more vulnerable. It is a circuit where the reigning champion has always struggled – though for Marquez, “struggling” means only managing podiums rather than wins – and where the Yamahas, especially, have been strong.
Valentino Rossi has won here nine times, and Jorge Lorenzo has been either first or second at the track for the past five years. The track flows, and has a little bit of everything.
A long, fast front straight, some elevation change climbing up into the two stadium sections, the two “horns” of the Catalunya bull which the Montmelo circuit most resembles, a couple of esses, and long, flowing combinations of corners. Those corners more than compensate for the front straight.
Jorge Lorenzo reckoned that the Yamaha had a top speed deficit of perhaps 4 or 5 km/h on the Honda, but that at Barcelona, this was less of an issue than at other tracks. After all, he pointed out, there are some 3.7 kilometers of corners in which to catch a Honda ahead of you.
One circuit, three races, all of them utterly different in nature. The wide, flowing layout with a long straight, fast corners, and multiple combinations of turns present very different challenges to Grand Prix racing’s three different classes.
For Moto3, escape is impossible, the race coming down to tactics and the ability to pick the right slipstream. In Moto2, it is possible to get away, but it’s equally possible to chase an escaped rider down.
And in MotoGP, the fast flicks make it possible to both defend attacks and launch your own counter-attacks. Mugello is a wonderful circuit, and it served up a spectacular portion of racing on Sunday.
Jack Miller has been handed two penalty points for his last-lap clash with Alex Marquez, which caused Miller, Marquez and Bastianini to crash.
The Red Bull KTM rider made a very late lunge up the inside of the leading group at Scarperia, but clipped the back of Miguel Oliveira’s Mahindra, which forced him to stand the bike up and into the path of Alex Marquez. Marquez ran into the back of Miller, and the two riders fell, taking out Enea Bastianini with them.
After the incident, Miller accepted full blame for the crash. “I went in there a little bit too aggressive, trying to overtake too many people at once,” Miller said. “There was a bit of room there, and I went for it, but Oliveira closed the door. I touched his rear tire, stood it up and almost had it, then Marquez ran in to me from behind. It was completely my fault.”
Saturday Summary at Mugello: Signs of Marquez’s Weakness, The Importance of Equipment, & The Rocketship Ducati
Knowing that not everyone is in a position to watch qualifying and races when they are live, we try to operate a no-spoilers policy for at least a few hours after the event.
For us, this means no results in headlines, nor on the Twitter feed. But, as the mighty motorcycle racing Twitter personality SofaRacer put it today, “I know you don’t like to Tweet spoilers David. But ‘Márquez on pole’ and ‘Márquez wins’ technically, erm, aren’t.”
To the surprise of absolutely nobody, Marc Marquez took his sixth pole of the season, and his seventh pole in a row on Sunday. Marquez remains invincible, even at what he regards as his worst track of the year.
His advantage is rather modest, though. With just 0.180 seconds over the man in second place – the surprising Andrea Iannone – it is Marquez’s smallest advantage of the season, if we discount Qatar, where he was basically riding with a broken leg.
You get the sense that Marquez is holding something back, almost being cautious, after being bitten several times by the track last year, including a massive crash in free practice and then sliding out of the race.
It makes him almost vulnerable for the first time. His race pace is still fast, but he has others – Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa, even the Ducatis of Andrea Iannone and Andrea Dovizioso – all on roughly the same pace.
The weather didn’t really play ball at Mugello on Friday. The forecast rain held off until the last five minutes of Moto3 FP2, before sprinkling just enough water on the track to make conditions too wet for slicks, too dry for wet tires. That left the entire MotoGP field sitting in their garages waiting for the rain to either get heavier and wet the track completely, or else stop, and allow it to dry up.
Dani Pedrosa explained that though the track was dry in most places, San Donato, the first corner at the end of the high speed straight, was still wet. Bridgestone slicks need to be pushed hard to get them up to temperature, and if you can’t push in Turn 1, then they don’t. That leaves you with cold tires, which will come back and bite you further round the track.
One of the items on the list of requirements Dorna sent to Michelin was the need for an intermediate tire. Would anyone have gone out if they had had intermediates? Pedrosa believed they would have. “With intermediates you can go out. I’m not sure whether you get anything out of it, but for sure you don’t have 24 bikes in the box.”
You don’t learn much in terms of set up when you go out on intermediates, but more people might venture out. One team manager I spoke to was less convinced. “We have five engines and a limited number of tires. We can’t afford to lose an engine in a crash. Why take a risk, when it’s better to save miles on the engine?”
The wasted afternoon session left Marc Marquez – who else? – on the top of the timesheets. It had not looked that way for much of the session. Valentino Rossi had led the way from early on, Marquez only taking over in the front towards the end. For Marquez, this was a conscious strategy.