Naming a corner after a rider confers a particular honor on that rider, but it also puts enormous pressure on them. The last time it happened – Jerez in 2013, where the final corner was named after Jorge Lorenzo – things didn’t quite work out the way the honoree had hoped.
Dani Pedrosa went on to win the race comfortably, while Lorenzo was bumped aside in his eponymous corner by Marc Márquez, finishing the race in third, and clearly upset. That gave rise to an episode of “Handshakegate”, a recurring paddock melodrama, where Jorge Lorenzo refused the proffered hand of Marc Márquez, wagging his finger in the younger Spaniard’s face as a sign of disapproval.
So what does this mean for Turn 10 at the Motorland Aragon circuit? The long left hander which starts at the bottom of the “Sacacorchos”, Aragon’s very own version of Laguna Seca’s Corkscrew, dips then rises round towards Turn 11, and the back half of the circuit.
Today, after resisting for several years, Marc Márquez finally accepted the honor of having the corner named after him, in a ceremony featuring Dorna boss Carmelo Ezpeleta, the circuit director Santiago Abad, and circuit President Marta Gaston.
Could we see history repeating itself? Jorge Lorenzo comes into the weekend as hot favorite to win the race, after a run of strong results in recent weeks. This is a track where Lorenzo excels: he has won here twice, and been on the podium every year since 2011.
It is a track where he got his second podium on the Ducati in 2017, during his first, difficult season of adaptation. And the Desmosedici GP18 is improved in a couple of important areas, which should give Lorenzo the pace he needs to face down Marc Márquez.
“Especially compared to the Hondas we lose in two or three turns,” Lorenzo told us on Thursday. “Mainly in the last corner – it looks like in a long corner that comes back the Honda turns a little bit better. So we hope that half of the problem – maybe not all of the problem, as I said in Sachsenring, – we could fix this time.”
“And the other part was the two chicanes – the change of direction – we lose half a tenth because the Honda looks like it has more agility and we lose a little bit more. So these three ones are where we lose the most. For the opposite we gain a little bit on the straight and the acceleration. Let’s see this year, because the Honda engine is a bit more powerful.”
With the Ducati turning better – and Lorenzo having mastered the way to get the bike to turn, using less lean angle and more back brake – Lorenzo could have the tools to take the fight to the Honda.
But the Honda still has some crucial advantages at Aragon, thanks to its agility and the number of turns the track has. And the fact that it is mostly a track that turns left, something which Marc Márquez probably does better than any other rider in the world.
From the short front straight, the track turns sharp left, a hazardous corner to start a race, a little like Misano. It flicks right again as it climbs up the hill, before a slight left while braking on the edge of the tire for Turn 5.
A sequence of right handers follows, until the track drops down the steep hill at the “Sacacorchos”, or Turns 8 and 9. From what is now Márquez Corner, the bikes all heel hard left through Turns 10 and 11, before braking hard for the Bus Stop, the two chicanes at Turns 12 and 13, and then Turns 14 and 15.
This section of the track is where races can be won and lost. There is a chance to get ahead while braking for Turn 12, underneath Aragon’s massive and unique stone wall, but you run the risk of counterattack at Turn 13. A short straight, and it’s repeat the drill, this time going right first, then left.
Turn 15 is one of the most vital corners on the circuit, leading on to the back straight. Defend the corner too vigorously, and you risk allowing the rider harrying you to get better drive and pass you down the straight. Focus too much on the exit, and you risk someone punching underneath at Turn 14, and putting a block pass through 15.
Down the hill they plummet, speeds hitting 340 km/h on the way towards the two final left turns, in reality a single long corner from the bottom of the hill back up again. A draft can be crucial down that back straight, smart riders waiting until the final third to whip out of the slipstream and hold off those they have just passed on the brakes. But it is all too easy to miss your braking marker down there, as the extra few km/h leaves you going faster than you anticipated.
All those left corners make it one of Marc Márquez’ favorite tracks, hence the circuit naming Turn 10 after him. He has won here three times in MotoGP, including the races in 2016 and 2017. Yet the track is not without its challenges: Márquez has also managed to crash here twice, the two years before.
The one thing which might prevent him from going all out for the win on Sunday is the fact that the title is so close. All the omens point to Márquez clinching the 2018 title at Motegi, an important factor given that senior management of Honda Motor Company will be assembled to witness a Honda triumph.
“I’d like to win on Sunday like every Sunday, but if it’s not possible we need to finish on the podium,” he told the press conference. The title is the target, which means that a podium place – especially if it is in front of Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo – is more important than a win.
Theory vs. Reality
All those long corners should suit what is arguably still the best handling bike on the grid, the Yamaha M1. It has been 22 races since a Yamaha rider last stood on the top step of the podium, matching Yamaha’s longest losing streak in the premier class, between 1997 and 1998. But the chances of Maverick Viñales or Valentino Rossi calling a halt to that current streak are low.
The problem is that though the bike is good, the Yamaha M1 struggles in low grip. Especially the kind of low grip conditions you find on a hot Sunday afternoon after the Moto2 race. “I feel really good with the bike,” Viñales told the press conference.
“Honestly, the feeling with the setup is good, and I feel good all the time I go on the bike. For me, that is the most important right now because on the bike we had some troubles, which everyone knows already, but we are working really hard and I hope this weekend we can show the potential on Sunday.”
Valentino Rossi expanded on the issues the Yamahas have. “Usually it’s the tracks that are very slippery, where the grip is not fantastic, where with the Yamaha we suffer a bit,” the Italian said. “And also is a big stress for the tires, especially for the rear tires because you have a lot of long corners and under this point of view we suffer also. So these two things, I think.”
Though part of Yamaha’s problem lies with the engine they have chosen, Rossi rejected the idea of changing the rules to end the engine development freeze. “For me, the engine is a part of our problem,” he said.
“But unfortunately it’s not only the engine. It’s true that with this regulation you cannot modify during the season. But for me, a lot of things are also from the electronics, and with the electronics you can work during the season. So it’s not a problem of the rules. For me the engine, we have to improve and is a part of our problem but not the total.”
I4, not V4
There have been some suggestions that Yamaha’s problems lie with the fact that the M1 uses an inline 4 configuration, where all other factories bar Suzuki have switch to a V4 layout. In a recent blog, Mat Oxley laid out a convincing case that this is where Yamaha’s main issues lie. But Valentino Rossi rejected the idea that Yamaha could switch to a V4 configuration in the near future.
Speaking to the Italian press, he said, “I don’t think Yamaha have any idea of building a V4, at least, not before I retire. It will remain an inline 4, we have to hope it will all go well.” It would not make sense for Yamaha to build a V4, as they have no experience of building four-stroke racing engines in a V4 configuration.
Getting it right would take at least a year of development, followed by at least another year of refinement, to try to catch up with Ducati and Honda. That is just too long to wait. Better for Yamaha to put more resources and concentrate more on understanding and extracting the maximum performance from the spec electronics.
Yamaha’s problem is also in part that the racing is so close at the moment, and that there are so many competitive bikes. Yamaha are probably no more than a tenth or two off racing-winning pace, but where in previous years, a tenth a lap would still put you in a position to win on occasion, and at least finish regularly on the podium, with this level of competition, a tenth a lap means finishing with five or six bikes ahead of you.
The closeness of the field brought another problem into view at Misano. Christophe Ponsson was drafted in to replace the injured Tito Rabat, but the naming of the unknown Frenchman incited near revolt among the MotoGP riders.
During the Safety Commission at Misano, the riders discussed alternatives to the current 107% cutoff point for qualifying to race. The idea of reducing 107% was rejected, but the idea was put forward that substitute riders should only be accepted if they can first do a test.
Aleix Espargaro referred to his own case. The Spaniard was drafted in to ride the Pramac Ducati vacated by Mika Kallio in 2009, after the Finn had been promoted to the factory team after Casey Stoner was absent through illness, which would turn out to be late onset lactose intolerance. “I remember, Ponsson said that nobody on that grid rode a MotoGP bike for the first time in a race, but that is not true,” the Aprilia rider said.
“I tried a MotoGP bike for the first time in a race weekend in Indianapolis. I was 17 or 18 years old. I was not ready. I was at home, not racing and I remember arriving at Indianapolis and the first time I touched the brakes I almost went into the grandstand because carbon is different, everything is different.”
Things had not gone too badly for Espargaro, but he still felt it was the wrong decision, to be thrown in at the deep end. “I did a good race, I was very close to the top ten, but I think it was a mistake that I was able to race there because the best riders in the world, the best bikes in the world – you try the bike before you race.”
Espargaro pointed to something that Alvaro Bautista had said about the situation. “I remember Bautista said a very intelligent thing, which was that in the past, 8-10 years ago, the rider who was in 15th place was 3.5s off pole position. Now the rider in 15th is eight tenths. So when somebody new is coming, seven seconds is impossible. The times have changed a lot and so we have to change the rules as we do in many different areas now.”
Torches & Pitchforks
Speaking of safety, there was much talk of Romano Fenati. Though no one would condone what Fenati had done – leaning over on the back straight to squeeze the front brake lever of Stefano Manzi during the Misano Moto2 race – there was still some division among the riders.
Cal Crutchlow was steadfast in his opinion. “I didn’t change my mind, even though he pulled a sob story,” the LCR Honda rider said. “It’s like he apologized, and now everybody has to feel sorry for him. I don’t believe it, and he has done many strange things.”
But there was some sympathy for Fenati given the media hype that engulfed the Italian, Fenati’s actions making headline news on TV stations which normally never give a second thought to motorcycle racing. “I heard people who have never seen a race talking about motorcycle racing,” Valentino Rossi commented.
“They made Fenati’s action a bigger thing than the victory of Dovizioso with the Ducati, and sincerely, I don’t understand why this happened. Disqualification for two races is not very much, but what happened afterwards was much worse.”
Andrea Dovizioso agreed with Rossi’s sentiments, and blamed social media for firing up a virtual lynch mob. “The media spoke too much about that, and they went in the wrong way, because they spoke about stupid things, not about racing,” Dovizioso said.
“The social media created a really bad situation, I think the social media in this case created a very bad answer and I hate that people speak just because they are able to do something, and they maybe don’t understand the reality. I don’t like the situation and the way the media managed that.”
Social media has brought many benefits to world of MotoGP, and opened up new avenues for the sport. It has brought fans closer to riders, and made the paddock feel far more accessible to far more people.
But, it is also a place where things can run quickly out of hand. Love and admiration is never far away on social media. But neither are the torches and pitchforks.