This is the first in a series of weekly round ups of motorcycle racing news from around the world. Every Wednesday, we will bring a brief summary of stories that did not warrant a full article of their own. So here are some stories you may have missed, for the week preceding February 11th, 2015.
When AMA dirt tracker Kenny Roberts arrived on the European 500 Grand Prix scene in 1978, road racing would never be the same. Not only did Roberts win the 500 GP title in his rookie year, as Marc Marquez did in 2013, but he also brought with him a radically new style derived from dirt track in the USA.
Robert’s style was of course, immediately copied by his rivals, much like Marquez’s dynamic style is being imitated today. KR, and the Americans that followed him, embraced dirt track lines, sacrificing entry speed, picking the bike up early and launching out of the corner, rear wheel spinning and handlebars crossed up.
Putting the bike sideways with the rear wheel 100mm out of line, steering with the rear wheel was the new way to ride. Dirt trackers then pretty much dominated 500 Grand Prix for nearly two decades between Americans: Roberts, Spencer, Lawson, Rainey, Schwantz and the Aussies: Gardner and Doohan.
Danilo Petrucci has always been one of the most underrated riders in MotoGP. The Italian came into the class from Superstock, where he finished runner up in the Superstock 1000 class.
He joined the IODA Racing team, where he started off on the team’s own Aprilia-based machine, before switching to the Suter BMW. Last year, he rode the Aprilia ART machine for the IODA, before finally getting a shot at a proper MotoGP machine this year with Pramac.
Since making the move, Petrucci has quickly got up to speed, but three years on underpowered bikes have left the Italian with a riding style problem to fix.
Like many other former Open class and CRT riders, he is used to carrying corner speed, to compensate for a lack of horsepower.
Now on a Ducati Desmosedici GP14.1, he has horsepower to spare, and needs to adapt his riding style to stand the bike up earlier and make use of the available acceleration.
I spoke to Petrucci after the last day of testing at Sepang, where he explained what he had been working on. He talked of changing his riding style, developing electronics for the factory team, and getting help from his friend Valentino Rossi.
Who has the best bike? Is it Honda? Or have they been passed by Yamaha? Did the first MotoGP test of the year at Sepang answer that question? After Monday, we thought the answer was yes.
After Friday, it’s clear that it’s not clear. There is still a long way to go to the start of the season, and the only thing we can be sure of is the fact that this is going to be a fantastic year in MotoGP. When it’s hard to point to who has an advantage, it means the racing is going to be tight.
So how did the balance of power swing from Yamaha to Honda? Yamaha turned up at Sepang with a bike that was ready to go. They had plenty of parts to test, but following the Yamaha philosophy, all of those parts offer just a small, but positive change.
The bike was fast, and got a little bit faster. That meant that Yamaha were quick on the first day, and got a little quicker day by day.
Honda, on the other hand, turned up with four different bikes for Marc Márquez, and three for Dani Pedrosa, and the two Repsol Honda riders spent the first day of the test running back-to-back comparisons.
They had pretty much narrowed down their choice by the end of Wednesday, confirming their impressions on Thursday, then getting on with the job of improving the bike through Thursday and Friday.
The first day of the first Sepang MotoGP test is always a revealing of secrets. It’s not that the factories tell the media everything they are doing, but with everyone on the track, there is nowhere left to hide. The timesheets tell the tale.
The story of the second day is always a little more complex. Initial impressions from the first day are absorbed, the data examined and analyzed, and engineers and mechanics come up with new ideas.
That means that riders are working on different ideas and in different directions, some changes work, others don’t. Times become much more difficult to assess.
So what did we learn today? A lot. Not so much from the lap times – Jorge Lorenzo is fastest, and looking as good as ever, Andrea Dovizioso is incredibly quick, especially on a new soft tire, and the Hondas have chosen a direction to follow – but more about the underlying state of play.
It was a fascinating day, despite the fact that the standing barely changed much after noon.
Valentino Rossi is sporting a new winter test helmet design, as is tradition for the nine-time world champion. Looking like a riff on something you would find at an “Ugly Christmas Sweater” party, Rossi’s new lid design is certainly…festive.
Perhaps that’s too harsh of a critique for The Doctor, but you can’t mistake the snowflake’s design as something straight from J.Crew’s yule-log holiday catalog.
Ugly Xmas sweater or not, Rossi put a bow on Wednesday’s lap times — second-fastest overall, and by far the most comfortable looking on a MotoGP bike.
Rossi said at Sepang that he is hunting for his 10th World Championship this season, and we believe him. Only a man with that level of confidence could rock a helmet with a snowflake on it, after all.
There is something about the sound of a MotoGP bike that stirs the blood once again. After a long winter, in which one reflects on the many negatives of following motorcycle racing – hard work for little money, endless trips through faceless airports to faceless hotels, and long periods away from home.
A few milliseconds of the sound of a MotoGP bike being warmed up is enough to make you forget all that, and melt away the misery of business travel on the cheap under the fierce heat of passion for the sport. There is nothing that excites like motorcycle racing.
It was an intriguing first day back, with highs and lows, strong performers and real disappointments. The finishing order is not completely indicative of the real strength of the field, but it offers some sound clues as to who stands where.
The 2015 MotoGP season kicks off tomorrow. On Wednesday, the riders take to the track once again at Sepang to continue the development on the bikes they will be racing this year, and to test out the new updates the engineers have been working on during the winter break.
And yet the two most important and interesting developments won’t even be at the first Sepang test.
Ducati’s much-anticipated Desmosedici GP15 is not quite ready for primetime, and so will not make its public debut until 19th February at the launch in Bologna, and not make its first laps in public until the second Sepang test at the end of this month.
Yamaha’s fully seamless gearbox – allowing both clutchless upshifts and downshifts – will also wait until Sepang 2 before Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo get their hands on the bike.
The official reasons given for the delay are that the GP15 and Yamaha’s gearbox are almost ready, but not quite, still needing a few last checks by the engineers before they are ready to be handed over to the factory riders.
Those of a cynical – or perhaps even paranoid – bent may be tempted to speculate that the delays are more to do with the media than the engineering. The first Sepang test this week is well-attended by journalists and photographers alike, the MotoGP press just as eager as the riders and the fans for the winter to be over.
The second Sepang test sees only a very few journalists attend, with few publications willing to spend the money to cover the expenses for what is often just more of the same.
Perhaps the factories have caught on to this, and are taking advantage of the opportunity to test important new parts with a little less media attention. Or perhaps it really is just a case of not being quite ready in time.
Despite the absence of the really big news, there will still be plenty to see. So who will be testing what, and what are the key factors to keep an eye on?
I’m going to start the 2nd and final part of my 2014 photo retrospective with the image above of Marc Marquez. Taken at Woodcote during Sunday mornings warm up for the British Grand Prix at Silverstone.
Woodcote was one of the most exhilarating sections of track I shot last year. The sensation of speed as the riders came past, back wheel sliding, only feet away was indescribable.
2014 did not go to plan for Yamaha. After the first four races of last year, Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo trailed the Repsol Hondas by 76 points in the team championship, and Yamaha was 33 points behind Honda in the manufacturers standings. Marc Márquez was in the middle of an unbeaten run, Dani Pedrosa backing him up strongly.
There were a lot of good reasons for Yamaha’s troubled start. Yamaha was struggling to get a smooth throttle response from a liter less fuel, the new Bridgestone tires were less suited to the YZR-M1’s need for high corner speeds, and Jorge Lorenzo arrived at the start of the season out of shape, after neglecting his training after surgery during the winter.
2015 looks like being the polar opposite. At the launch of their 2015 campaign, the Movistar Yamaha team looked forward with some optimism. Building on the progress made in the second half of 2014, the bike is much more competitive, Valentino Rossi arrives motivated by his strong season, and Jorge Lorenzo is lean and fit, having spent all off-season preparing. They are ready for big things.