The old adage about not judging a book by its cover seems particularly apt after the first day at Qatar. Fans and followers were hoping the changes made over the winter might shake things up a little, but they weren’t expecting a revolution.
At the top of the timesheets in MotoGP sits Aleix Espargaro on the Open class Forward Yamaha, nearly half a second ahead of the rest. In second place was Alvaro Bautista, not on an Open bike, but on a satellite Honda. Bautista, in turn, was ahead of three other satellite machines, Tech 3’s Bradley Smith leading Pramac Ducati rider Andrea Iannone, with the other Tech 3 bike of Pol Espargaro behind.
The first factory rider (that’s factory rider, not Factory Option) was Dani Pedrosa in 6th, over a second behind the Open class bike of Aleix. Valentino Rossi in 7th, on the factory Movistar Yamaha, could only just hold off former teammate Colin Edwards on the other Forward Yamaha. Even Nicky Hayden was just a tenth off the pace of Rossi, despite the Drive M7 Aspar rider being on the production RCV1000R Honda, a bike which was giving away over 12 km/h to the M1 of Rossi.
Has the revolution finally arrived? Has the Open class turned MotoGP on its head? Not really, though that didn’t stop the bookmakers from shortening the odds of an Aleix Espargaro win from 51/1 down to 11/1. The first page of MotoGP’s 2014 chapter is deceptive, as the Open and satellite bikes all have a head start.
At the notoriously dusty and low-grip track, it takes time to get the bikes dialed in, and the factory riders, fresh from testing at the ultra-high-grip Phillip Island circuit are suffering a Qatari culture shock. The satellite and Open bikes have already spent three days testing here, and have both the setup and the feeling of the track under control.
Ask any Grand Prix rider for his top three circuits, and you can bet that two names will figure on almost everybody’s list: one will be Mugello, and the other will be Phillip Island.
The order which the rider in question will put them in may vary, but the two appear so often because they share something special. Three factors make the two tracks such magical places to ride: they are both fast, they are both naturally flowing, and they are both set in spectacular locations.
Though their settings may be equally stunning, there is one major difference between the two. While Mugello sits amid the Mediterranean warmth of a Tuscan hillside, the Bass Strait, which provides the backdrop to the Phillip Island circuit, is the gateway to the cold Southern Ocean, with little or nothing between the track and Antarctica.
The icy blast that comes off the sea will chill riders, fans, and team members to the bone in minutes, gale force winds often buffet the bikes and trying to blow them off course, when it isn’t throwing seagulls and larger birds into their paths. The fact that the the track has a corner named Siberia tells you all you need to know about conditions at the Australian circuit.
Just a few hours before the bikes hit the track, all the talk should be about the prospects for the riders in the coming weekend. At Sepang, though, it was all different.
Nobody was talking about who might end where, whether the Sepang is a Honda or a Yamaha track, whether Ducati will benefit from Sepang’s long straights or suffer around the fast corners, about whether Scott Redding or Pol Espargaro will have the upper hand in Moto2. It was not the prospect of on-track action, but off-track drama which captured the attention.
As the last of three back-to-back races, the British Grand Prix at Silverstone sees the teams and riders looking a little more tired and frazzled around the edges than when they first convened after the summer break at Indianapolis. Tempers are a little shorter, stubble is a little longer, and eyes are a little redder.
Add to this the fact that Thursday at Silverstone also plays host to the Day of Champions, and the teams and riders have a lot more PR duties to do, going up to the stage to help sell some of the items up for auction to help Riders for Health, and you have a group of tired and irritable motorcycle racing followers all clumped together in a room.
Despite the weather, the overwhelming consensus is a positive feeling going into the weekend. The track is widely loved, every rider I spoke to singing the praises of the circuit. What’s more, the forecast of fine weather has also had a positive effect on the general mood. In the past, Silverstone has inspired dread among the paddock, as it has all too often been cold and very, very wet.
Moving the race from June to late August/early September has been a masterstroke, however, as the chances of warm dry weather are vastly improved. Nicky Hayden even half apologized to the waiting British journalists for having given them a hard time about the British climate.
Three races on three consecutive weekends may be tiring, but it does allow for a series of extended discussions between rider managers and teams. The first of the expected deals was made official today – Scott Redding announced at Gresini, to ride a production Honda for 2014, and the factory prototype in 2015 – but more are clearly in the pipeline.
The big question, of course, is can he do it again? After taking his first win in two-and-a-half years and 45 races (after Assen, there were a lot of tortuous calculations being made trying to squeeze the number ’46’ in somewhere) since his previous one, the question is, was it just a one-off or is Valentino Rossi capable of fighting for the win every weekend from now on?
It’s a tough call to make, but on the evidence so far, things are looking good for the Italian. Rossi’s braking problem appears to have been solved, allowing him to ride in the way he wants to. The front end tweaks which his crew chief Jeremy Burgess found at Aragon seem to have worked, and given Rossi confidence in braking again.
Just what those changes were? Matt Birt, writing over on the MCN website, has a full explanation of the changes made by Burgess, but the short version is that they found a solution to cope with the softer construction front Bridgestone tires introduced last year.
Revised fork innards, including changed shims, has made the first part of the fork travel a stiff enough to compensate for the softer tire construction, allowing him to brake harder, yet still turn the bike. Now able to enter corners as he wishes, he should be able to at least fight with the front runners from the start.
Being competitive and winning at the Sachsenring are two different things, however. While the Sachsenring is a track where Rossi has always done well – not like Mugello, perhaps, but still good enough – there is the small matter of Dani Pedrosa to deal with.
The Repsol Honda man has won the race for the last three years, and would have won a couple more with a little more luck. The man himself has no real explanation for why he is so fast around the circuit, other than remarking that he enjoys the corners around the track, but the fact remains that Pedrosa is nigh-on invincible around the Sachsenring.
Winning a MotoGP championship – in fact, winning any motorcycle racing championship – is very hard indeed. It takes years of training, and a full season of utmost concentration, and hours, days, weeks, and months of hard work to get everything as perfect as possible. Losing a championship is done in seconds, maybe milliseconds. A single, small mistake, and you can throw away everything you have devoted your life to achieving.
Jorge Lorenzo came into Assen on a roll, off two victories in a row, at Mugello and Barcelona. Assen is a track which suits the Yamaha, and at which Lorenzo is outstanding. He was comfortably fastest in the morning session, ahead of Cal Crutchlow on the other Yamaha, and was just starting to get into the swing of things on a soaking track when he hit a patch of water deeper than he was expecting.
In the blink of an eye, he was tossed from his bike and onto his shoulder, suffering a displaced fracture of his left collarbone which will ensure that he will miss the race on Saturday at Assen. The momentum Lorenzo had been amassing in the previous races just hit a brick wall.
This is going to be a big weekend in MotoGP, perhaps one of the most significant in a long while. The outcome of Sunday’s race is unlikely to be earth-shattering – the chance of the top three being entirely Spanish, and composed of two Repsol Hondas and a Factory Yamaha is pretty large – and the championship will look much the same on Sunday night as it does now. Yet this weekend will be key.
Much of the interest – and intrigue – revolves around the test on Monday. The most visible piece of the MotoGP puzzle will be in the Suzuki garage, where their brand new MotoGP machine is due to make its first real public debut.
The bike has had a number of private tests, some more secretive than others, the latest being last week at Motegi with Randy de Puniet. The times that were leaked from that test were respectable, though with only test riders for competition, it is hard to put them into context.
At Barcelona, a public test, with official timing, and up against the full MotoGP field, there will be nowhere to hide. Will the Suzuki be able to match the times of the Hondas and Yamahas? Unlikely, the bike is still at an early stage of development.
But it should be faster than the CRT machines, and close to the Ducati satellite bikes. De Puniet’s first target will be himself, and the time he sets during practice and the race on the Aprilia CRT he rides for Aspar.
Mugello is a spectacular setting. Even when it absolutely pours down, so badly that a river starts running through the Mugello paddock, the setting remains spectacular. It makes navigating the paddock without a life vest fairly treacherous, but at least the view is stunning. The rain looks set to stay for the duration, though the forecast appears to be improving day by day, but the riders need not fear a lack of wet track time.
As always, the riders waxed eloquent on the circuit, almost universal in their praise. Most entertaining simile of the day was from Bradley Smith, who compared Mugello to a motocross track: all undulating surfaces, blind crests and banked corners. He is right, of course, but it is not the first comparison that springs to mind when describing a track as physically large and magnificent as Mugello.
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.