MotoGP Preview of the British GP

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This time last year, the entire paddock was stood in the rain, looking at the skies, and wondering how we were ever going to have a MotoGP race at Silverstone again.

After a brief shower of torrential rain on Saturday put more water on the track than the new surface could drain away, making the track unrideable and creating conditions which saw a series of riders crash at the end of Hangar Straight, Tito Rabat coming off worst as Franco Morbidelli’s wayward Honda smashed into his leg and destroyed his femur.

With the forecast for rain later on Sunday, the race was rescheduled for an early start, the lights due to go out at 11:30am local time. But the rain came earlier than forecast, and was heavier, and the track never dried out. There was standing water at several sections around the track.

We waited, and we waited, and we waited. And we looked at one another and asked, have you heard anything? And every time we heard about a possible start time, or a time to evaluate track conditions, that was contradicted or retracted ten minutes later.

In the end, conditions never improved enough to be able to run the race safely, and after an impromptu meeting of the Safety Commission convened by at least some of the riders, race day was canceled. No MotoGP race, no Moto2 race, no Moto3 race.

Nothing. The crowds, who had sat valiantly in the rain for hours with nothing to see except the safety car and its attendant bow wave, went home with surprisingly little fuss. Hard to riot when you are stone cold freezing and wet to the bone, I suppose.

Miraculous Return

So it is nothing short of a minor miracle that we are back at Silverstone for another edition of the British Grand Prix. So much has happened in past year. Haggling over blame between the circuit, Aggregate Industries, who had carried out the resurfacing, and the various parties’ insurers.

Last year’s tickets have been refunded. The surface has been ripped up and a new surface laid again, this time by Tarmac (the company that invented the eponymous material known as asphalt in the US) under the watchful eye of Studio Dromo’s Jarno Zaffelli. An F1 race has been held, and on the basis of feedback from that, a small section of track replaced again to remove some bumps.

It is a sign that Silverstone is absolutely committed to being the home of MotoGP in the United Kingdom that they spent the resources to do all that was necessary to keep it, gambling the future of the circuit on its success.

And it is right that they should do so: though Silverstone has its problems as a place for spectators, it is the only circuit in the UK where the MotoGP bikes can truly stretch their legs and be used to their full potential.

The location is what works against Silverstone. Like so many of the UK’s racing circuits, it was built on a former airfield. And airfields need to be on high ground, and flat, which leaves Silverstone with little obvious elevation change, and no surrounding natural hillsides where crowds could gather and watch.

And so Silverstone has to build the grandstands themselves, or leave the fans to find niches where they can see enough of the track from ground level. Thankfully, there are a few places where that is possible.

Real Race Track

The layout of the track more than makes up for the shortfall in facilities. Silverstone is everything a MotoGP track should be: fast, sweeping, and terrifying, with plenty of places for riders to pass. It has a bit of everything: high speed straights with hard braking at the end; fast changes of direction which demand agility; grand, sweeping corners which reward skill and courage.

There are few places where you can make big gains with horsepower, and plenty of places where an underpowered bike can use superior handling to close a gap on a more powerful bike, or open a gap of their own.

The new surface will make the track even more of a challenge. The new asphalt should have plenty of grip, and with hot weather expected for the weekend, grip levels will only get better. Lap records are certain to be smashed, the only question being by how much.

The current pole record is a 1’59.941, the race lap record is a 2’01.560. When I asked Jarno Zaffelli whether he expected to see a 1’59 in the race, he thought for a moment, and then replied, ‘sure!’.

That suggests that the bikes that need grip to go fast have more of an advantage at Silverstone. In this case, especially the Yamahas, which can use the added grip to convert drive out of corners into acceleration and speed down the straights.

The Yamahas already have their biggest weakness covered, as most of the corners are exited carrying some speed. It is the low-gear corners where they suffer most, and Silverstone has very few of them.

Beware of Tuning Forks

Yamaha showed what is possible with extra grip in Austria. They were expecting to have another miserable weekend like in 2018, but instead they finished third, fourth, and fifth.

If they can do that at a track which is the polar opposite of what the Yamaha is good at, it bodes very well at a track where they layout favors them. Silverstone needs a bike which can change direction at high speeds, and the Yamaha M1 can certainly do that.

The question is, could we see an all-Yamaha podium? That is not beyond the realm of possibility. There has been at least one Yamaha on the podium at every race held at the circuit, in both the wet and the dry.

Yamaha riders have four of the eight races held here. Both Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales have won at Silverstone, albeit that Viñales was riding a Suzuki at the time.

Add in Fabio Quartararo, and you have a potent mix of riders. The Frenchman has gone exceptionally well at strong Yamaha tracks, getting his first podium at Assen, and much is expected of him at Silverstone.

Could he win his first race this weekend? It is not beyond the bounds of possibility. The only counter argument to be made is that he is still 500 RPM short of the factory bikes, a difference which could be crucial at points on the track.

Blue on Blue

So will it be Viñales or will it be Rossi? The Spaniard has already won a race this season, taking victory at Assen. He has now found the groove he needed to be consistent, is happy with the bike setup and the way his team is working.

If he could fix his starts and early laps, he would have had even better results this year. That will be key at Silverstone.

As for Rossi, the Italian knows he can be fast at the British circuit, having won here in the wet in 2015. It was once a track he struggled at, having missed out the first year MotoGP returned to Silverstone due to injury. But since he has had more success, his opinion of the track has improved.

“Silverstone is a fantastic track, it’s a great track… a big track because you have everything, it is very fast, long, technical. Everybody is waiting for the new asphalt tomorrow because if they make a good work with less bumps and more grip it will be very fun to ride here,” Rossi said on Thursday.

He has another reason to hope for a good result. The next few races could be crucial to Rossi’s future. It is rumored that he has given himself until Misano to make a decision on his future, on whether he will sign another contract when this one expires at the end of 2020.

A podium at Silverstone would be real motivation. Actually winning a race could sway his decision a lot.

Super Suzuki

Perhaps the main obstacle to an all-Yamaha podium at Silverstone is the bike on which Maverick Viñales won his first MotoGP race. The Suzuki GSX-RR does everything the Yamaha does, only a little bit better.

It changes direction faster, holds a line better, accelerates harder, and has more horsepower. On paper, it is the ideal compromise between power and agility, a perfect combination for Silverstone.

Much will come down to qualifying for Alex Rins, once the Achilles heel of the Suzuki rider. A starting place on the two front rows will be crucial for his race. The Spaniard has grown in confidence in recent races, spending more time on race rubber than on setting a quick lap in search of a spot in Q2.

As Marc Márquez has demonstrated, having the confidence to forego putting in a quick lap at the end of each free practice session gives you an extra 20 or 30 minutes of practice time over the weekend to spend on setup, which pays off handsomely in the race.

Rins is accompanied by test rider Sylvain Guintoli at Silverstone, rookie Joan Mir still recovering from the bruised lungs he picked up at the Brno test. Guintoli will be inspired at what is effectively his second home race.

The Frenchman has done sterling work for Suzuki as a test rider, and he should be able to reward them with a strong points finish at Silverstone.

Ducati Gains Where Honda Can’t

The additional grip at Silverstone should not make much difference for the Ducatis. The Desmosedici GP19 appears capable of producing mechanical grip thanks to the design of the bike.

That allows it to get out of corners faster, and to brake late into the following corner. Add this to the horsepower of the Ducati, and you have a winning combination, as Andrea Dovizioso showed at the Red Bull Ring two weeks ago.

Ducatis have been on the podium plenty of times at Silverstone, promising a lot for Dovizioso’s title challenge. The nature of the circuit means a big group is likely to form at the front of the race, and if the Italian is smart, he can use that to his advantage.

He needs to put some riders between himself and Marc Márquez if he is to start clawing back points to make his championship deficit more manageable.

Dovizioso showed that this was on his mind at the press conference.

When Márquez and Dovizioso were asked how many times they had watched the last lap of Austria, Márquez played it down, saying he only watched it once or twice – or rather, he would have liked to only watch it once or twice, if it wasn’t for the Social Media feed pumping out clips from the last lap just about every single day.

But Dovizioso responded he had seen it a lot more times, watching the race every time he saw it come past on his TV.

It was a subtle dig, but compounded when the riders in the press conference were asked what the best moment of their careers was. Dovizioso decided that the last lap of the Austria race was the highlight of his career, a rather surprising choice, unless you saw the look on Marc Márquez face when he mentioned it.

There is needle between the two protagonists in the championship, and it is growing greater as we approach the decisive stretch of the championship before the flyaways. How hard or how easy it is for Márquez to wrap up the title will be decided in the next three races.

Losing the Bumps Helps

Does Marc Márquez have something to fear? For sure, despite the fact that the reigning champion has also won here in the past. The strength of the Honda is that it deals well with less than optimal grip – Márquez will tell you that it is the other way round, other manufacturers do better when there is more grip, the Honda improves less. So with lots more grip at Silverstone, he may well fear the competition.

Saving grace for Márquez is the fact that the track is a lot smoother. “Every year here, the main problem was the bumps,” Márquez said.

“So if it’s smoother it will be different. It’s true that in the past we were struggling more when there was a new surface and a lot of grip. But this year with a different kind of engine, more powerful, it looks like we also suffer when the grip is very low. So we have more grip and we have the torque to use it.”

Márquez’ primary objective will be to finish as close as possible to Dovizioso, and preferably ahead of him. At this stage of the championship, Márquez is playing the long game, keeping his eyes on the prize.

Back from the Dead

Silverstone also sees the return of Jorge Lorenzo. During his absence, rumors ran amok that he had been in touch with Ducati about a return to the Italian factory, initially to replace Jack Miller at Pramac next year, or otherwise to another seat in 2021, when all the seats are open.

Though we pushed him to acknowledge the contact, the Repsol Honda rider remained as vague as possible. “I am here to speak about the future,” he said when pressed.

He was quite open about the concern and worry he had gone through after sustaining a serious injury at the Barcelona test and Assen race, fracturing two vertebrae in his back. ”

As a human being after two very big, hard crashes – especially in Assen but also, you couldn’t see it but in the Montmelo test but it was huge, and this created the problem I had in Assen as I was not completely healed with my vertebrae after the Montmelo test crash.”

“After the big crash that I had never suffered in my career before but when you talk about back injuries it gets serious,” Lorenzo told the press conference.

“Then I started having doubts, doubts about my life, about my career and I think it is human and normal to have these kinds of doubts,” he explained. “When I started to feel better in the recovery these doubts started to disappear, and the commitment and the challenge that, more or less one year ago, I decided to take I became convinced again about it.”

“The challenge to be competitive with the Honda MotoGP bike, to be able to win with them and to be able to win with three bikes which no rider in MotoGP has done.”

“After recovering and feeling better and knowing that this injury will not create problems in the future for my health I felt commitment to stick with this challenge and I called Alberto and Honda and told them I wanted to be fully committed to the challenge.”

But he carefully sidestepped any direct questions about whether he called Ducati or they called him. “Well, there were a lot of rumors about that even if I wasn’t there,” he said. “I never told anything because I knew I had two years of contract with Honda.”

“But because the situation became very rare and the rumors were huge I decided to call Alberto to tell him that I wanted to keep my commitment with the factory.”

In a sign of just how hard he is trying to avoid the question of what happened, Lorenzo left directly after the press conference. Normally, the non-English speaking riders stay on to speak to the media in their local language. On Thursday, Lorenzo left immediately without speaking to the Spanish press.

The official line was that Lorenzo had a very busy schedule due to the extra commitments caused by the Two Wheels for Life Day of Champions being held at Silverstone. That didn’t seem to affect Marc Márquez, Valentino Rossi, or Andrea Dovizioso, who all stayed on to speak to the press.

Zarco’s Choice

The other big story held over from Austria was of course the decision of Johann Zarco to leave KTM at the end of this year, a year early and before the end of his contract. It had been a true leap in the dark, the Frenchman not having a ride to go to for the 2020 season.

His choices are either going back to Moto2, or becoming a MotoGP test rider and competing during wildcards, but he was a long way from having any deal finalized, he said.

Were there any positives from the past 10 months, he was asked? “The positive is that I’m still crazy enough to take a decision that no-one would take! That may be a thing that is necessary if you really trust in what you want,” Zarco replied.

He was interested in a return to Moto2, he said. “That’s a possibility. I still did not speak with the right people for a Moto2 comeback. It’s a possibility, but it’s only ten days after the decision and it was important to let some days pass.”

“Also so I can take time to explain my situation to every important person in this MotoGP world and I think, back in Moto2, on the sport side it’s not a bad solution because it gives me the possibility, also with a good team, to give my best and target a world title that will help me to stay on a very high level of performance in the mind and body. And in that case feel good.”

He had also considered a role as a test rider, Zarco explained, but being a test rider had its downsides. “I have spoken already and I still have to speak more.”

“To keep the contact with a MotoGP bike, and do many laps on a MotoGP bike to prepare my mind and body to a high level, that is one of the best options. So let’s see which door will open and I will go as a test rider but not as a retired guy, I will go as a guy who is hungry to come back.”

Would he prefer being a test rider to racing in Moto2? “To keep the highest feeling of MotoGP it looks like it’s best to be a test rider,” Zarco said. “The only question mark is if you don’t do 20 races in a season would I lose the pace or not?”

But better to lose pace than to lose motivation, Zarco said. “When I say even dangerous it’s because I was coming with the best motivation every weekend and after a few laps or few runs on the bike I was then not feeling good because trying to solve my problems and not finding any solution,” Zarco said.

“So then I didn’t know what to do. What could become dangerous was that I even wonder how to ride the bike and at this speed you normally have to just take a decision and take the right decision. I mean, if you start to think too much which decision you have to take, you cannot be fast.”

Failure, Or Not Failing

Making the decision to leave could be seen as a failure, but Zarco pointed out that he would have been regarded as a failure if he had continued for a second year on the KTM.

“Failing this project, maybe yes, but the feeling was if I continue also for next year and I cannot have better results I will not only fail with the project but fail with my career,” Zarco said. “So that was biggest scare. So that’s why I prefer to have the opportunity to do something else for next year, than wait one more year.”

Valentino Rossi had some sympathy for Zarco’s situation, having been through something similar with Ducati back in 2011. “I feel a bit similar when I was with Ducati because there is a lot of expectation from outside, but especially from myself and Ducati to be competitive and to win but unfortunately I didn’t have a good feeling with the bike, especially with the front – maybe it was similar with Zarco,” the Italian told the press conference.

“I know that when you are in that situation it is really difficult because you lose the motivation and also the happiness to start for the race and think positively that you can do well.

It was a self-reinforcing negative spiral, Rossi said. “You have already started in a negative way and, you know, it is difficult if you don’t have fun to ride the bike, everything becomes more heavy – the travels, speaking with journalists, everything…You go in a tunnel.”

“A lot of times I think to stop when I was with Ducati but in the end for me it was a good decision not to give up because if you stop, you don’t have another bike for racing so it is very easy to go out of the business. At the end I did some good races, like Misano and I take some podiums, in the end it was the right decision.”

“When I hear about Zarco I think he has another option for next year but looks like no, so it’s difficult. But I think for everybody it is different. Everybody is a different and if that is his choice, I think he will come back with a competitive bike soon.”

Photo: MotoGP

David Emmett

One of MotoGP's most respected journalists, David Emmett is the proprietor of the esteemed MotoMatters. We are very grateful to republish David's work here on A&R...though dread the day we ever again get in a car with him.