There is a danger to thinking any championship is a foregone conclusion, especially this early in the season. Just as there is a danger to thinking that a race will pan out the way you thought it would after practice and qualifying. At Assen, everyone was afraid of three things: the weather, Jorge Lorenzo, and Pol Espargaro. All three turned out differently than expected.
Best of all was the weather. After treacherous conditions on Friday, with rain falling, stopping, wetting the track just enough for Casey Stoner to bang himself up badly in the morning, though that did not stop him from blasting to pole, Saturday dawned bright and only got better: the big skies of flat-as-a-board Drenthe were mainly blue, with the occasional sighting of fluffy white clouds to provide a little cover and prevent egregious sunburn. But best of all, it stayed dry: no complications, just sunny, dry and calm weather.
Neither Lorenzo nor Esparagaro would prove too pose much of a threat either, Lorenzo through no fault of his own, but Espargaro would need no outside help in taking himself out of the equation. The crashes of Lorenzo and Espargaro – Lorenzo taken out by a boneheaded move from Alvaro Bautista, for which the Gresini Honda man will have to start from the back of the grid at the Sachsenring, Espargaro crashing on a bump at the Ruskenhoek – put an end to the domination of the two men in the MotoGP and Moto2 classes.
Espargaro had blasted every sessions of free practice, and only a blistering lap from Marc Marquez had denied the HP Pons rider pole. Lorenzo’s domination had been more subtle, his race pace clearly several tenths better than anyone else, though others on soft tires occasionally bettered the Spaniard during practice and qualifying.
Assen’s surface is pretty good when it’s dry, and it’s not too bad when it’s wet, but this is 2012, and there’s a MotoGP race this weekend, so of course, the conditions are as bad as they can possibly be. For Assen, that means a few spots of rain here and there, just enough to create patches damp enough to catch out the unwary, or even the wary, as Casey Stoner found out this morning.
Heading down the Veenslang Stoner noticed the first spots of rain on his visor. Through the Ruskenhoek, it turned into drizzle, and he had already backed off into De Bult when he was flung from the bike in what he described as one of the worst crashes of his career. He took a knock to the head, banged his left shoulder and left wrist, and suffered a big and very painful contusion to his right knee, that left him hobbling around like an old man in the afternoon.
The problem is the asphalt. The current surface means it is impossible to see when the track is damp, rather than wet, meaning that it is easy to get caught out, Ben Spies said, an explanation later verified by Wilco Zeelenberg, Jorge Lorenzo’s team manager. The track is fine when it’s dry, and when it’s wet, the water sits pretty evenly, making for a predictable surface. But the first few spots of rain are lethal. If that were to happen in the race, it could make for a very dangerous situation, Spies said.
The German round of MotoGP is to stay at the Sachsenring circuit until 2016. Dorna announced today that they had signed a five-year deal with the ADAC, who own the Sachsenring, to keep the race at the circuit. The race had been under threat earlier, after projected losses for the German GP meant that circuit feared not being able to afford the event.
Three races in 15 days, right in the middle and most important part of the season. MotoGP lines up at Assen with one third of the season gone. By the time the triple header is finished at Mugello, just over two weeks’ later, we are half way through the season and the title is a lot closer to being settled. These three races are crucial.
Not that it changes anyone’s approach. During the press conference, I asked the riders if they took a more cautious approach, knowing that the cost of injury is much, much greater now than it is when there is more time to recover between races. They looked at me as if I were stupid – a conclusion they have some justification for drawing – and told me that they treat these three races the same as the first race, the last race, and every other race in between. Flat out, and trying to win. It is impossible to win championships without winning races, as Casey Stoner likes to point out, so it is better to focus on that than on worrying about what might happen.
Honda is working on a simplified version of its RC213V MotoGP machine to sell to teams as a CRT bike. Working together with Thomas Baujard, journalist for the French magazine Moto Journal, we have learned that work on the V4 machine is already underway, though a production date for the bike is not yet known.
HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto confirmed to Baujard at Silverstone that work was ongoing on the project, though Nakamoto did not like it being referred to as a CRT bike. “Not a CRT bike,” Nakamoto told Baujard, “it is a production racer!” When asked later about the engine layout, Nakamoto confirmed that the bike was a V4 rather than an inline four. “It is a replica of this bike,” Nakamoto told me, pointing to the Repsol Honda garage, “But cheaper. It is easier to use an existing design.”
Now that three races have passed, giving the paddock time to digest the news of Casey Stoner’s shock decision to retire and consider what effect it will have on the future line up of the MotoGP grid. The riders’ representatives have been very busy at the past few races, putting out feelers to factories and teams, weighing up opportunities and gauging the market value of their riders. With summer approaching, Silly Season for the 2013 Championship is very much open.
Two more decisions have accelerated developments, and drawn the lines of the 2013 season a little more clearly. Firstly, Jorge Lorenzo’s decision to stay with Yamaha for next season – “if Jorge wants to win championships,” said Lorenzo’s team boss Wilco Zeelenberg at Barcelona, “his best option is to stay at Yamaha.” The strength of the team and the state of the bike do seem to have been the key criteria for Lorenzo’s decision, the Spaniard opting for performance over financial gain.
The second development is the dropping of the Rookie Rule, preventing newcomers into the MotoGP class from going straight to the factory teams. The rule was popular with some team owners, but it also created major headaches for them: a big-name rookie like Marc Marquez does not come alone, but brings a small army of sponsors, advisers, mechanics, and assorted hangers on.
Room has to be made for these people and these sponsors, and long-term relationships have to be put aside to make way for them, which team managers then have to try to reestablish a year later once the rookie has gone. The abolition of the Rookie Rule clears the way for Marc Marquez to enter the Repsol Honda team, but it also opens up opportunities for other rookies at Yamaha or Ducati.
With these developments in mind, we can start to take a look at the current state of the market, the range of options open to riders in MotoGP, and what bikes may be on the grid for next season.
For the past few years, attending a MotoGP round has been a disheartening experience for most British fans. After sitting in traffic for several hours, they then faced a day of getting soaked to the skin while watching their local heroes – if any were actually on the grid – circulating around at the rear of the pack. At the end of the day, they faced yet more hours sitting in a chaos of traffic chaos, with usually another downpour of rain, just to get home again. They loved it, of course, but it tested their courage.
2012 would be different. The miserable weather magically disappeared for race day – it was far from perfect, but it remained largely dry – Scott Redding got on the podium in Moto2, and Cal Crutchlow put on a heroic and brilliant performance in MotoGP. It might be fair to question the wisdom of Crutchlow’s decision to lie about his foot not being broken and race anyway, but there is no question about his bravery or pain threshold, nor, after starting at the back of the grid and slicing through the field to finish 6th, matching the pace of race winner Jorge Lorenzo, about his ability. The British fans have a hero again. More than one, in fact.
The rookie rule is to be dropped for the 2013 season. The Spanish daily El Pais is reporting that Dorna and IRTA have decided that the rule preventing MotoGP rookies from being signed to a factory team had to be scrapped due to the difficulties presented by the limited number of bikes available to ride. As a consequence, it was felt it was better to drop the rookie rule altogether, rather than create more problems for existing satellite teams by maintaining it.
Ducati is to test the latest version of their Desmosedici GP12 engine next week at Mugello. Ducati team manager Vitto Guareschi said that Franco Battaini is to start testing the bike, complete with the new engine, next week, in preparation for handing the machine over to Nicky Hayden and Valentino Rossi for a final test on the Monday after the Italian Grand Prix at Mugello. If that test is successful, then both factory Ducati riders will have the new engine available as part of their allocation from Laguna Seca, the race directly after Mugello.
The weather has been a cruel mistress at Silverstone this weekend, much as it has been every year MotoGP has paid a visit. The track is built around an airfield, and consequently sits on a plateau just enough above the surrounding area to catch any wind which may be about. On Saturday, that was a lot, with the wind blowing hard and gusting harder all day, catching many a rider out, especially on the way into Brooklands. The wind also blew in occasional showers, though it blew them back out again just as fast, a small blessing on an incredibly difficult day.
Despite the conditions, three men braved the wind to take pole in each class, to varying levels of surprise. That Maverick Vinales should take pole in Moto3 is much as expected, Silverstone being the Spaniard’s third pole position in a row. Though his advantage is relatively modest, there has been no one to mount a serious challenge to his supremacy all weekend, and if he gets a decent start he will be a very hard man to beat.
Pol Espargaro’s Moto2 pole is hardly unexpected – the Spaniard is one of the main candidates for the title this year, and is looking particularly fearsome at Silverstone this weekend – yet it is his first ever pole in the class. A front row regular this season, things have really come together with the Pons team and the Kalex chassis, the bike performing exceptionally well in the windy conditions. Mostly, though, Espargaro’s performance is down to the man himself: he has led every session at Silverstone so far, his advantage over his rivals increasing each time.
The big surprise came in MotoGP, Alvaro Bautista snatching his first ever pole in the premier class. Luck – and judgment – were certainly on Bautista’s side, the San Carlo Gresini man timing his first fast run just right, the first light showers appearing shortly after he claimed the spot atop the timesheets. Though the rain may have hampered his rivals – Casey Stoner, in particular, was confident he could have gone a lot faster than he had, his crew finding a big improvement just before the rain came down – Bautista’s time was of itself highly respectable, and came on top of strong performances throughout free practice.
“It was an up-and-down day,” Ben Spies said after practice on Friday, and truly, he spoke for a large part of the paddock. It started with the weather: the overnight rain continued for the better part of the morning, leaving the track soaking during FP1. The sun came out at lunchtime, quickly drying out the track, helped by the strong winds buffeting the circuit. The dry track helped, the wind certainly didn’t. “That’s what happens when you build a circuit on an airfield,” Cal Crutchlow commented curtly, after complaining about being blown around by the gusting wind in the afternoon.