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.
The news had been coming for a month or so, but at last it has been announced officially. Valentino Rossi has signed a two-year extension of his contract with the Movistar Yamaha team, and will race with them in MotoGP for the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
For the past few races, Rossi had said he had been close to signing a new deal, but had a few details still to clear up. Those details had been resolved at some point between the Barcelona and Assen rounds, with Rossi’s new contract signed at Assen.
It should hardly come as a surprise that Marc Marquez should be fastest man on the day at the post-race test at Barcelona. The Spaniard has been the standout of the season, and for him to be fastest, even at a track where he has not dominated like at others, is starting to become par for the course. More of a surprise is the name of the man in second.
Bradley Smith came up just four hundredths short of Marquez, making up for a mediocre race on Sunday, caused by a tire which was not performing as expected. The first thing Smith did when he started testing in earnest this morning was to try the same tire he used in the race.
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.
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.
Colin Edwards is to finally get the new chassis he has been waiting for. NGM Forward boss Giovanni Cuzari told MotoGP.com that the team will have a new frame at Mugello, along with a new front fairing. A new seat unit and subframe would also be available. The new parts will only make their appearance on race day, Cuzari said.
More parts would appear after Barcelona, Cuzari said, which would bring their bike to approximately 75% of the machine planned for next year, which will be a complete rolling chassis with Yamaha engines. The parts would initially only be given to Colin Edwards, who has struggled to get to grips with the Yamaha chassis.
He has been unable to get the bike to turn, leaving him well off the pace of teammate Aleix Espargaro. Espargaro has been very happy with the chassis supplied by Yamaha, when supply problems left Forward with a frame. In 2015, Yamaha have committed to only supplying engines, with chassis no longer being available.
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.
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.
Two races and three qualifying sessions in, and all three classes in MotoGP are providing an object lesson in the importance of consistency. Marc Marquez has taken pole for all three MotoGP races, Tito Rabat has done the same in Moto2, and Jack Miller has been on pole for two out of three Moto3 races.
There’s a similar pattern in the races as well, with Jack Miller having cleaned up in Moto3, and Marc Marquez winning both MotoGP races so far. The only interlopers are Alex Rins, who nabbed a Moto3 pole at Qatar, and Maverick Viñales, who gatecrashed the Moto2 party at Austin. Then again, if you were hoping to have your party gatecrashed, you’d definitely want it done by a man called Maverick.