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David Emmett

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The possible permutations in MotoGP rider line up for 2020 are limited, with almost everyone already under contract for next season. At the Sachsenring though, Danilo Petrucci was added to the ranks of confirmed riders, with Ducati extending his contract in the factory team for 2020.

A contract extension for Petrucci had been on the cards for some while, the Italian’s victory at Mugello making it an inevitability. Ducati is very pleased with Petrucci’s performance, and the way that he and Andrea Dovizioso have worked together.

Coming weekend, history will be made. For the first time, Grand Prix racing will welcome vehicles not powered by internal combustion engines, as the MotoE series makes its debut at the Sachsenring. It is the very first step on the long path toward a future where batteries replace burning hydrocarbons.

But the series got off to a rocky start, even before the first race. At the second test of the electric bike racing series, a fire started in the special tent containing all of the bikes, batteries, and chargers, destroying everything and wiping out the entire series in one fell swoop.

Since March, Nicolas Goubert, director of the MotoE series for Dorna; Energica, who build the spec electric bikes to be raced in the series; and Enel, who supply the charging technology to maintain the bikes, have worked at double speed to rebuild everything needed for the series, and get it ready for the inaugural race at the Sachsenring.

In Le Mans, I spoke at length to Goubert about the progress made in preparing the series, the challenges they had faced, and the lessons learned from the fire in Jerez.

The fire highlighted some of the difficulties of an electric bike series, but just staging the series raises logistical and technical issues which nobody had foreseen.

Here is part 1 of the interview. Part 2 will follow tomorrow:

Is there still such a thing as a Honda track, a Yamaha track, or a Ducati track (or even a Suzuki track)? Once upon a time, it seemed like there was. MotoGP would go to Indianapolis, and you knew that a Honda would win. Go to Mugello, and chances are, a Yamaha would emerge victorious.

In the press room, we would spend hours trying to decipher why one bike or another would win at a particular track. Was it temperature which counted? We suspected that, but then a Yamaha or a Honda would win at a cold track one week, and a hot track the next. Was it the layout or the type of corner that mattered?

Hondas dominated the stop-and-go layout of Motegi, and then got destroyed by the Yamahas at the stop-and-go layout of Le Mans. In the end, we figured it all came down to grip: in low grip conditions, the Hondas were quick; when there was plenty of grip, the Yamahas were unbeatable.

That disappeared in recent years, killed by the technical developments which led up to the switch to Michelin tires. 1000cc engines, spec electronics, and the regulations which have seen the bikes grow ever closer in performance.

With the differences between the machines so small, other factors had a greater impact on results than just the character of the bike. No longer can you predict a winner based on which bike they are on.

It has been a bad few weeks for Jorge Lorenzo. During the Barcelona race, he lost the front and wiped out three of his rivals (or rather, three of Marc Márquez’ rivals), Maverick Viñales, Andrea Dovizioso, and Valentino Rossi.

The next day at the test, on an out lap, he launched the bike at Turn 9, suffering a huge crash and causing himself a lot of pain.

Eleven days later, and a relatively normal crash in Assen saw him bang himself up very badly. Lorenzo lost the front going into the fast left at Ruskenhoek during FP1, not an uncommon occurrence.

The problem was he was doing over 200 km/h, so when he hit the gravel he started to tumble, not quite ragdolling through the stones, banging his chest and his back as he went.

The consequence of the crash is severe. So severe, it forced Repsol Honda team manager Alberto Puig to have to talk to the media, something Puig tries to avoid as much as possible (and being team manager means he can avoid it an awful lot).

“Basically I am here to explain about his condition,” Puig said. “Normally I am never here. So I am just here to tell you the situation…and probably you already know. So I will re-confirm.”

Four weeks after press releases full of rolling Tuscan hills, the cliché machine is running out release after release containing the phrase “The Cathedral of Speed”.

There are of course good reasons to employ a cliché (and press releases usually benefit from trite language, as their objective is to promote the team and its sponsors, rather than the literary skills of press officers), but to call Assen the Cathedral of Speed is to raise the question of whether it still really deserves that moniker.

Much has changed since the first ever Dutch TT in 1925. The first thing that changed was the very next year, in 1926. The first circuit ran over public roads between the villages of Rolde, Borger, and Schoonloo, but the council in Borger refused to pave one of the sand roads on the original course.

So in 1926, the race was moved to Assen, run between the villages of De Haar, Hooghalen, and Laaghalerveen to the south of the city of Assen.

Since then, the track has been reduced and reshaped a number of times over the years, losing a little bit of its glory each time it was shortened. The last time it was cut was in 2006, when the North Loop was excised to allow the land to be sold to fortify the circuit’s coffers.

That, perhaps, was a cut too far. The North Loop section was stunning: fast, flowing, challenging, immensely rewarding if you got it right, punishing if you got it wrong.

What replaced it is a tight little hook, a sequence of right-handers leading on towards the sharp Strubben hairpin. A shadow of its former self.

Luck has always played a role in racing. Sometimes the rain falls just after you set pole position. Sometimes your main rival has a technical problem at a track where you knew they would beat you.

Sometimes the rider ahead makes the smallest mistake and opens up the perfect gap for you to aim through. Things happen over which you have no control, and you have to hope the dice will roll in your favor.

Perhaps you can load the dice a little, sometimes. Bear in mind the saying attributed to golfing legend Gary Player: “the more I practice, the luckier I get.” Luck can be made, on occasion, opportunity recognized and seized. If you tackle the conditions you find, rather than the conditions you wish you had, you at least have a chance.

Conditions at Barcelona put everyone on the back foot. Temperatures rose from relatively cool to typically scorching, after a week of heavy rain. That rain brought down the dust and sand blown north from the Sahara by the Sirocco winds, leaving the track dirty and green.

No grip and constantly changing conditions made consistency an illusion. Finding the right race tire was more guesswork than science, Sunday morning warm up being critical. The Barcelona race looked to be a lottery.

The 2018 British Grand Prix at Silverstone was a miserable affair from every possible perspective.

On Friday, the riders complained bitterly about the bumps that had appeared, despite the track having been resurfaced over the winter, a complaint which echoed the Formula 1 drivers, who had raced there several weeks earlier.

On Saturday, in a downpour, several riders crashed at the end of Hangar Straight, including Tito Rabat. Unfortunately for Rabat, Franco Morbidelli crashed immediately after him, his bike slamming into Rabat and shattering the Avintia Ducati rider’s leg. Rabat would face a very long recovery to come back from such a severe injury.

Things got worse on Sunday. Heavy rain drenched the track after warm up, and continued steadily throughout the day. Mindful of Rabat’s accident, and the fact that there was standing water at several points on the track, the racing was delayed in the hopes of better weather. When better weather didn’t arrive, it was called off altogether.

That created a massive problem for Silverstone. Though fans who had turned up on Sunday had their tickets and parking refunded, the future of the British Grand Prix – both of them, F1 and MotoGP – was at stake.

The surface laid by Aggregate Industries was not deemed good enough to race on, the bumps coming through too quickly, and the drainage not good enough.

If Silverstone wanted to continue hosting world championship motorsports, they would have to resurface once again. And they could not afford to get it wrong again this time.

It has been a strange weekend so far in Barcelona, with changing conditions once again the culprit. First, there was the heavy rain on Wednesday and Thursday, which left the track coated in fine sand and dust blown in from the Sahara.

Then there is the rapidly changing weather: temperatures have been rising rapidly every day, with track temperatures 10°C higher on Saturday than they had been on Friday, with a similar increase expected again on Sunday.

Track temperatures for the race are expected to be well over 50°C, spelling disaster for grip levels.

Completing the trifecta of problems, the Moto2 race is likely to leave a thick layer of Dunlop rubber on the surface, which will make grip levels even more unpredictable. “After Moto2, it will be worse,” Michelin’s Two Wheel Motorsports manager Piero Taramasso predicted on Saturday evening.

“Many times this problem happens when you have aggressive asphalt, which is the case here, and on a track in very hot conditions, which is also the case. So I think that tomorrow after the Moto2 race, the conditions will be not as good as we would like.”

Another day of track action and the running of the Moto2 race may help sweep some of the dust and sand from the track, but the rubber the Moto2 bikes leave behind in the forecast hot and humid conditions will leave the surface greasy and without grip.

“The track will be cleaner, but without Michelin rubber on the track,” Taramasso said. One step forward, two steps back.

Why are the MotoGP bikes so much slower at Barcelona than last year? In FP1, fastest man Marc Márquez was a second and a quarter slower than Valentino Rossi was in the first session of 2018. Fabio Quartararo, fastest rider in FP2, was 1.2 seconds slower than Jorge Lorenzo was in the same session in 2018.

“If you compare to last year, in FP2 somebody did a 1’38 and many riders were able to do a 1’39, but this year, nobody was able to do a 1’39,” Takaaki Nakagami wondered. “More or less 1 second slower than last year.”

The answer came from the skies. When I walked to my car this morning, I found it covered in thick drops of very fine dust. According to the locals, this is a fine dust carried from sandstorms in the Sahara, 1000km south of Barcelona.

Heavy rain earlier in the week, then brief showers overnight, and at the start of the afternoon, left this fine Saharan sand all over the track, making it dusty, and robbing it of grip.

A lack of grip wasn’t the only problem. The sand on the track was also incredibly abrasive, chewing through tires, especially fronts, and especially in FP1. When Marc Márquez came back from his second run on the medium front tire, the right side looked like someone had taken a cheese grater to it.

Things were much better in the afternoon, but it did make figuring out who was doing what much more difficult. With conditions so rough in the morning, most riders were using up their allocation of tires they did not expect to need for either qualifying or the race. But some were also approaching the weekend from a different angle.

Was FP1 a wasted session? “No, it was not a waste of a session for sure,” Fabio Quartararo told us on Friday afternoon, after setting the fastest time of the day. The brief rain shower in the afternoon had made FP2 a tricky proposition as well, the Petronas Yamaha SRT rider said.

“Also in FP2, there was some rain in Moto3, it looked like it wasn’t water, it was more dirt. I work a lot with the rear brake, and today, I couldn’t touch it, because as soon as you touch it, the bike is sliding a lot. So for me the track today was really dirty, and we see that the lap times are really far from last year already.”

If MotoGP has a home, it is in Barcelona. There are many other places which have a solid claim to that title, of course. The Grand Prix championship was born in the Isle of Man, the 1949 TT being the first event to count towards the motorcycle racing world championship.

Freddie Frith won the 350cc class race on 13th of June of that year, the race which kicked off the championship. (Dorna is celebrating the 70th anniversary of the start of the championship this week, so keep an eye out for that).

But the Isle of Man hasn’t been on the calendar since 1976, the circuit rightly ruled too dangerous to race a Grand Prix at, even by the standards of the 1970s.

If not the Isle of Man, is Britain the home of Grand Prix racing? The UK once provided the bulk of the riders in the championship, and many of the bikes.

But British influence has waned, and though the paddock is still full of Brits, especially in organizational capacities, there are just a handful of British riders in the championship, and the Moto2 engines of the British brand Triumph are actually produced in Thailand.

Italy certainly has a valid claim to be the spiritual home of racing. The two riders with the largest number of victories in Grand Prix racing, Giacomo Agostini and Valentino Rossi, hail from Italy, and both are widely touted as the greatest motorcycle racers in history.

There are two Italian factories in MotoGP, Ducati having been a mainstay of the premier class, while Aprilia formed the backbone of the smaller classes when they were still two strokes. And there is a generation of young Italian riders on the way up, brought on in large part by Valentino Rossi’s massive investment in Italian talent.

Japan, perhaps? Honda and Yamaha kept Grand Prix running from the dawn of the two stroke era up until the present day, while Suzuki did their part in the 1970s and ’80s, and are slowly looking to expand their support again, with a satellite squad likely to enter in 2021.

Japanese motorcycles have dominated the championship, and Japan has had its fair share of world champions, though predominantly in the lower classes. But though the championship would not exist without the efforts of the Japanese factories, often at considerable cost to themselves, Japan has never actively engaged in running the series, happy to settle for a role as chief supplier.

The first person you have to beat is your teammate. It is a truth universally acknowledged in the paddock. After all, they are on the same bike as you, with the same support, so the only difference between your results and theirs is down to ability – in theory at least.

Beat your teammate, and your team will prioritize you over them when it comes to contract renewal time, will pay you more money, will send more resources your way. If you’re in a factory team, the engineers will listen more carefully to you, and more likely to follow the direction of development you set out.

Teams use this same philosophy to motivate their riders. They encourage internal competition, hoping the two riders will push one another on to greater heights, to risk more for better results. Trying to win a race is motivation enough, but adding the frisson of showing up your teammate adds that little bit extra, the icing on the cake.

And reward enough should a rider fall short of winning. So far does this internal competition go that for most teams, the order in which rider quotes appear in the press release is determined by who is ahead in the championship, or who finished ahead during practice, qualifying, or the race.

Promoting internal rivalries is also playing with fire, however. Despite the smiling faces in the team launch photos and at PR events, the friendship is often feigned, the relationship often strained, teammates going out of their way to avoid one another.

That can lead to arguments over shared data, over updated parts, even over who goes first when speaking to the media. If the rivalry between teammates is not handled right, it can quickly become counterproductive, boiling over into internal warfare, hostility, and teammates actively working to sabotage each other, rather than serving the interests of the team.