Normally it takes bad weather to shake things up in a MotoGP race. For most of the day, it looked like the rain was ready to start at any time, but in the end it stayed pretty much completely dry, bar a quick and meaningless shower just before the Moto2 race started.
Regardless of what the weather decided to do, we still ended up with a bizarre MotoGP race anyway. The weirdness started even before the race had started, and continued pretty much all the way to the very last corner.
Jorge Lorenzo came to Texas knowing he faced an uphill challenge. Last year at the Circuit of the Americas, Marc Marquez had run away with the race, with only Dani Pedrosa able to follow. Lorenzo had put up a valiant struggle, but had been unable to prevent a Repsol Honda whitewash.
In 2014, Lorenzo had come facing an even tougher task, if that were possible. After crashing out at the first race, Lorenzo knew he had to score as many points as he could without taking too many risks.
He would have to find a very fine balance between pushing hard to try to catch – and who knows, maybe even beat – the Repsol Hondas, and ensuring he didn’t risk ending up with a second zero to go with the crash at Qatar.
The extra tension that created may have played a factor in what happened next. Lorenzo came to the grid with more bugs collected on his visor than usual. As he sat waiting for the official holding the red flag to leave the grid, he did something he never normally did while waiting for the start.
To ensure he got the best start possible, Lorenzo decided to remove the first tear-off from his visor, to clear up his vision. While he was pulling the clear plastic strip from his visor, the official hurried off the grid ahead of the start, as the rules dictate. When Lorenzo looked back up, he saw the official gone, and in a moment of confusion, got ready to start.
The start procedure specified in the rulebook states that once the official leaves the grid, the red starting lights will come on for between 2 and 5 seconds.
Once the red lights go out, the race officially starts, and riders are free to chase into Turn 1 as fast as they can. That light change is crucial, the lights imprinted onto the retinas and brains of world championship motorcycle racers around the globe. Once the lights change, you go.
There’s an old racing adage: when the flag drops, the talking stops, though the word ‘talking’ is rarely used. It’s a cliche, but like all cliches, it is a cliche because it reflects such a basic truth.
Without bikes circulating on track in anger, fans and press have nothing to do but engage in idle speculation, and pick over the minutiae of rules, rumors and races long past. As soon as the racing starts again, all is forgotten, and we all lose ourselves in the now. It is the zen which all racing fans aspire to.
So after spending months going round in circles over the 2014 regulations, speculating about who they favor, and expressing outrage at either the perceived injustice of the rules, or the supposed incompetence of those involved in drawing them up at the last minute, the talk stopped at Qatar on Sunday night.
The fans filled their bellies on three outstanding races, all of which went down to the wire. With something once again at stake, all talk of rules was forgotten.
And to be honest, the 2014 rules had none of the negative effects which so many people had feared. The best riders on the day still ended up on the podium, while the gap between the winner and the rest of the pack was much reduced. The gap from the winner to the first Ducati was cut from 22 seconds in 2013 to 12 seconds this year.
The gap from the winner to Aleix Espargaro – first CRT in 2013, first Open class rider in 2014 – was cut from 49 seconds to just 11 seconds. And even ignoring Espargaro’s Yamaha M1, the gap to the first Honda production racer – an outstanding performance by Scott Redding on the Gresini RCV1000R – was slashed to 32 seconds.
Even the cut in fuel did not affect the races as badly as many feared. It appeared that there had been some dissembling going on in both the Yamaha and Honda garages. HRC had been brushing off any suggestions that fuel may be an issue for them, while at Yamaha, there were a number of worried faces.
There was a clue that things were not as serious as feared when Jorge Lorenzo stopped worrying about fuel and focused his ire on the new Bridgestone rubber, but Valentino Rossi kept banging the fuel drum.
On race day, there was no sign of fuel issues for the Italian, Rossi telling the press conference that his engineers had done a great job to fix the fuel issues, and had given him a properly fast bike. “I think Yamaha worked well on the fuel consumption,” he said.
I knew it was going to be a big day at Valencia when I found myself taking two hours to get into the circuit on Sunday morning instead of twenty minutes. After years of relatively light traffic on the back roads, I took a wrong turn and found myself on the main motorway going from Valencia to Madrid, which was packed with cars and motorcycles heading to the circuit near Cheste.
The sun was shining, two titles were to be decided between five Spaniards, and that had brought the fans out in force. I was stuck in the middle of them, reminding myself once again that the best way – the only way – to visit a motorcycle race is on a motorcycle. These were big, big crowds who had come to see a show.
There have been occasions over the past few years when I have asked Nicky Hayden how he manages to find the motivation to keep racing every Sunday. His answer is always the same, whether I have asked him after a surprise podium, or after coming in tenth: “You never know what can happen in the race. That’s why we line up.”
Hayden is living testament to his own deeply driven mixture of ambition, hope, and determination. His 2006 championship was won against the odds, and against the greatest rider of the period at the height of his powers.
Sunday’s races at Motegi – indeed, the races at all three of the flyaways – have been a shining example of the vicissitudes of racing. In all three classes, the presupposed script was torn up and thrown away.
In Moto3, young men facing pressure made major mistakes. In Moto2, one astounding comeback met with disaster, another astounding comeback met with triumph, and a championship. And in MotoGP, the champion-elect as of a couple of races ago is finding himself having to fight for his title. The season is only over once everyone crosses the line for the last time at Valencia.
There is only one word which everyone would agree accurately describes the 2013 Tissot Australian Grand Prix, and that word is ‘eventful’. There are an awful lot of other words being used to describe it, some fit for publication, some less so, but nobody would argue with the fact that the entire weekend at Phillip Island was packed with action, controversy, surprises, and even the odd spot of excitement.
The tire issues suffered by both Dunlop and Bridgestone caused the Moto2 and MotoGP races to be shortened, and the MotoGP riders forced to make a compulsory pit stop. The pit stops certainly added an element of suspense, and even surprise, but they split opinion among fans, riders and paddock followers straight down the middle: half viewed the whole thing as a farce, the other half thought it made for a thrilling spectacle. The arguments between the two sides are likely to go on for a long time.
Sunday at Sepang provided a fascinating mix for motorcycle racing fans. A blistering Moto3 race, an impressive, if shortened, Moto2 race, and some breathtaking action in MotoGP. History was made several times over, and best of all, the races took place in front of a sellout crowd. Over 80,000 fans packed the stands in Malaysia, proof, if any were needed, of the slow, eastward drift of motorcycle racing’s center of gravity.
In the MotoGP race, Dani Pedrosa did what he had set out to do two weeks earlier at Aragon, before he was so rudely ejected from his bike. Pedrosa had a look of grim determination on his face from the moment he rolled up at Sepang, and it barely left him all weekend. He had come to do a job, the pain in his hips merely spurring him on to get what he had been robbed of by an overeager teammate and an exposed sensor.