The paradox of the motorcycle racer is that every race is a big race, yet no race is more important than any other. The pressure on the MotoGP elite is so great that they have to perform at their maximum at every circuit, every weekend.
Every race is like a championship decider, not just the race which decides the championship. There may be extra pressure at a home race, or on a special occasion, or when a title is at stake, but the riders cannot let it get to them. There is too much at stake to be overawed by the occasion.
Still, Mugello 2014 is a very big race indeed. It is Valentino Rossi’s 300th Grand Prix, and a chance for him to return to the podium on merit again, and not just because the crowds were calling his name.
It is the best hope of a Jorge Lorenzo revival, the Yamaha man having won the last three races in a row at the spectacular Tuscan track. It is the best hope for Ducati, the Italian factory having run well here in the past.
And it is the first realistic chance for Marc Marquez to fail, the Spaniard has never found the track an easy one, though it did not stop him winning there.
Who can stop Marc Marquez? By the look of the FP2 timesheet, maybe Andrea Iannone can. The Pramac Ducati rider ended Friday just 0.007 behind Marquez, the closest anyone has been to him on a Friday since Qatar.
Looks are, of course, deceptive, and if you dig a little deeper you see that Iannone’s fastest lap, though impressive, was made using a tow from Dani Pedrosa, just as the Repsol Honda rider was setting his fastest lap of the session. Iannone also benefited from using the extra soft rear tire which Ducati is allowed to use, making it that little bit easier to post a quick lap.
Iannone should not be written off too quickly, however. Pedrosa slowed up to let Iannone past immediately after the pair had set their quick laps, and on the next clear lap, Iannone got into the 1’33s again, posting a time equal to Pedrosa’s best lap, but this time, all on his own.
Whether he can convert that to consistent pace in the race remains to be seen. The Italian appears to be circulating around the 1’34.3 mark. Fast, but not fast enough to match what Marquez appears to be capable of.
For real race pace, you have to look a little further down the timesheets. Jorge Lorenzo appears to have refound his mojo, and is starting to grind out the laps. The Movistar Yamaha rider put in 16 full laps during FP2, 5 of which were 1’34.1s, plus a single lap of 1’34.054. This is the Lorenzo of old, working on consistent pace and slowly ratcheting up the pace.
Lorenzo’s pace is still no match for Marquez – the Repsol Honda man seems capable of banging in 1’33.8s at will – but it is clearly the best of the rest. It has taken four races for the real Jorge Lorenzo to make an appearance, but at least he is finally here.
As the MotoGP circus descends upon the charming French town of Le Mans this weekend, there is one question at the front of everybody’s minds: can he do it? Can Marc Marquez continue his incredible string of poles and victories by winning at Le Mans?
On the evidence of the 2014 season so far, you would have to say he can. But Le Mans is a different circuit, and one where a gaggle of Yamaha riders have gone well in the past. This could possibly be the first race since Qatar where Marquez is made to work for it.
Marquez has a lot going for him in France. Leaving aside his form – a perfect record of poles and wins this year, as well as being fastest in over half the sessions of free practice so far – the track looks to play to the Honda’s strengths, on paper at least.
The stop-and-go nature of the Le Mans track sees the bikes spend a lot of time under hard acceleration, with slower corners needing hard braking. The Honda’s ‘V’ approach to the corners – brake late, turn hard, stand the bike up quickly and get on the gas – seems to be a much better fit to the Le Mans circuit than Yamaha’s ‘U’ style – brake early, enter faster, carry more corner speed and smoothly wind on the throttle.
And yet Yamaha riders have won four of the last six races at the circuit. Jorge Lorenzo has won the French Grand Prix at Le Mans three times, and each time with a very comfortable margin over his competitors. Valentino Rossi has won here twice on a Yamaha, in 2005 and 2008, and finished second behind Lorenzo in 2010.
It’s even a track where Colin Edwards has shone in the past on a Yamaha – and where perhaps he can do well once again, despite hating the current Yamaha chassis he is riding at Forward Yamaha. This is the first in a series of circuits where Yamaha riders have dominated in the past.
If Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi want to start fighting back against the might of Marquez, Le Mans is as good a place to start as any.
The first MotoGP test of the season at Jerez is a tough one for the factories, coming as it does after three flyaway races on three continents, followed by a one-week hop back to Europe. Teams and engineers are all a little bedazzled and befuddled from all the travel, and have not had time to analyze fully all the data from the first four races of the season.
It is too early in the season to be drawing firm conclusions, and crew chiefs and engineers have not yet fully exhausted all of their setup ideas for fully exploiting the potential of the package they started the season with.
As a result, they do not have a vast supply of new parts waiting to be tested. The bikes that rolled out of pitlane on Monday were pretty much identical to the bikes raced on Sunday. The only real differences were either hard or impossible to see. Suspension components, rising rate linkages, and brake calipers were about as exotic as it got.
The one area where slightly bigger changes were being applied was in electronics strategies, with Yamaha and Honda working on engine braking, and Honda trying out a new launch control strategy. That new launch control system did not meet with the approval of Marc Marquez, however, and so will probably not be seen again.
Most of the teams spent their day revisiting things they had tried briefly during practice, but not really had time to evaluate properly. That paid dividends for Movistar Yamaha’s Jorge Lorenzo and Monster Tech 3′s Pol Espargaro, both of whom tried out the softer of the two tire options available.
Motorcycle racing is a continual war of innovation. It is a war fought out on many different battlegrounds at many different times, but at its heart, it is about finding new ways, better ways of doing things. Engineers, teams, and riders are always looking for some small advantage, turning what they do upside down in the hope of finding something to exploit.
Usually, when motorcycle racing fans talk about innovation, they have a vision of hard metal in their minds, of parts belonging on a motorcycle. They will point to aluminium twin spar frames, to upside down forks, to seamless gearboxes.
Some may allude to slightly less tangible improvements: Honda’s Torductor, a sensor used to measure the forces going through the engine sprocket directly; perhaps Yamaha’s electronics package, which combines 3D models of the racetrack with predictive models of tire wear and fuel load to provide adaptive vehicle dynamics strategies.
The human element is important too. New training methods come and go, along with new diets and new nutritional supplements. Riders suddenly start getting off the bike and jumping into ice baths to aid recovery.
Then, a year later, the ice baths are gone. If the championship leader spends a lot of time on a trials bike, everyone down to the rider bringing up the rear in Moto3 has to spend his time jumping rocks on a Beta or a GasGas. Should a new champion focus on racing dirt track, every rider and his mother-in-law has a dirt oval built in their back yard.
At Jerez, qualifying in both MotoGP and Moto3 showcased organizational innovation, the ability to see opportunities offered in a qualifying format, and to exploit them to your own advantage. In both cases those seizing their chances were richly rewarded, with Marc Marquez and Jack Miller securing pole comfortably in MotoGP and Moto3, their respective classes.
There is much to be said in praise of the first running of the Argentinian round of MotoGP at the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit. First and foremost, praise should be heaped upon the circuit itself. Designer Jarno Zafelli took a formerly pedestrian layout and added just enough kinks and twists to make for an exhilarating and difficult racetrack.
There are plenty of places to pass, and sections different enough that teams and riders can concentrate on their strengths, though that makes them vulnerable at other parts of the track. Add in a final section which lends itself to last-gasp attacks – at the risk of penalty points, as Romano Fenati found out – and you have an utterly superb track for motorcycle racing.
If Jarno Zafelli of Dromo was hired more often, instead of Hermann Tilke, there would be a lot more fantastic circuits to race at.
The only negative was the fact that the track was still so dirty, a result of it not yet having seen enough action. Once the riders got off line, they found themselves struggling for grip, losing a lot of ground.
Fortunately for the races, almost everyone got off line at some point or other, putting them all on an even footing. Once the surface cleans up properly, the track should offer even more places to attack, and alternate lines through sections. The Termas de Rio Hondo circuit is a fine addition to the calendar.