MotoGP Preview of the Catalan GP

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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.

Gran Premi de Catalunya

No, it is Spain – or more precisely, Catalonia – which is the home of MotoGP, certainly in the current era. The fact that series organizer Dorna has its head offices just outside Barcelona is obviously a big part of this, as it means that the paddock is full of Catalans, most of whom are in the employ of the Spanish company. Some of those Catalans work for teams in one capacity or another, be it crew chief, mechanic, chef, PR representative, or kitchen staff.

But above all, the Spanish, and the Catalans in particular, have dominated the championship as riders since the turn of the century. (Check list of champions in last 10 years). And most of those riders come from Barcelona, or its close vicinity. Some, like the Espargaro brothers, grew up within earshot of the Montmelo circuit. For them, it truly is a home GP. But not just for them.

The track is worthy of the status of spiritual home of Grand Prix racing. It has a little bit of everything, and a lot of things which are good. It has a high-speed straight, with a fierce braking zone at the end of it. It has long corners, fast corners, places to pass on the brakes, fast places you can slide underneath if you are brave enough or talented enough.

It has a tendency to produce fantastic last-lap clashes, the layout diverse enough to give different bikes places to deploy their strengths and compensate for weaknesses. The Ducatis have the long front straight and a couple of short straights to use their top speed at.

The Hondas can use their strength on the brakes at Turn 1 and Turn 10, the Yamahas can use their stability in long corners to either close down the fast bikes, or pull ahead. The Suzukis can use their agility to exploit the fast changes of direction, swooping underneath at Turn 4 or Turn 5, using their pace at Turn 12 or even the last corner.

Hills & Bumps

In some respects, Barcelona is similar to Mugello: a long straight with a lot of flowing corners. But in others, it is very different. There are very few places you brake hard at Mugello, whereas at Barcelona there are three or four.

There are fewer fast esses in Barcelona, and more long, round corners, especially in the first half of the track, Turns 3 and 4 seemingly going on forever. Most importantly, perhaps, there are fewer downhill corners, where the bikes are tipped in while braking with a lot of stress on the front.

There were other challenges at the track, however. Before the track was resurfaced at the end of 2017, the circuit was both highly abrasive and had very little grip. The lack of grip was down to a highly worn surface, and the race being held in early summer, when the sun beats down and raises track temperatures well into the 50s °C.

Adding to the peril were the bumps left by F1 cars, which pull up ripples in the braking zone. With F1 both racing and testing at the track, the surface took a real beating.

“Every time F1 goes to a track it’s super bad, because they destroy it for us,” Pol Espargaro says. “They create these small waves on the brakes because the downforce is so high, and they are able to damage the track. And they don’t feel these bumps as much as we feel them, and it was quite damaged.”

The bumps are in a bad place for motorcycle racing, right where the riders are at maximum braking. Seeking the point at which the front tire is just starting to lose grip is much more difficult when bumps are forcing the front wheel up and down.

“It starts when you are using full brakes,” Espargaro explains. “And when you try to turn the bike, you are already locking with the front, full force on the brakes, and then you are trying to put the bike inside, and you close.”

Strangely enough, there were a lot more crashes than usual last year, but that is the paradox of adding grip to a track. The extra grip gives riders more confidence, they push harder, and so tip over the edge that little bit quicker.

Ducati Track?

For the past two years, Barcelona has seen a Ducati on the top step of the podium. In 2017, Andrea Dovizioso took a superb win in difficult circumstances, and then in 2018, Jorge Lorenzo stormed to victory for the second race in a row.

In both those years, Barcelona saw the same winner as Mugello, which must give Danilo Petrucci some heart, coming straight off victory at his home Grand Prix.

Where the Ducati is strongest is obviously the long front straight. Speeds are not quite as high as at Mugello – the bikes howl through the speed traps at just over 340 km/h, rather than the mid-350s.

But speed is a real factor, and the braking zone at the end of the straight plays to the strengths of the Desmosedici as well. The GP19 turns better than last year’s bike, which can help them through the long corners.

Above all, it is the way the corners exit onto the straights which help, Jack Miller explained. “Once you come out of the last corner in the third gear the bike is already pretty wound up, so it likes that,” the Pramac rider told us on Thursday.

“We’ve got good top speed but it seems like the Hondas get us a little bit, especially this year on first, second gear acceleration, out of tight corners. Here there is always a flowing corner onto the straight so it’s alright.”

It will be important for all three riders on a GP19 to score a good result here. For Andrea Dovizioso, he needs to start closing the gap on Marc Márquez, which means finishing ahead of the Repsol Honda rider.

Dovizioso trails the Honda rider by 12 points, and with Assen and Sachsenring coming up, he cannot afford to fall much further behind. With three races to the summer break, it is imperative for Dovizioso to claw back points wherever possible.

Contract Time

For Danilo Petrucci and Jack Miller, Barcelona will also be crucial. The second factory Ducati seat will be decided during this weekend, with everything pointing towards the seat going to Petrucci.

A podium at Le Mans was a strong start for the Italian, but his win at Mugello almost clinched the deal. Speaking on Thursday, Pramac rider Jack Miller seemed resigned to the idea that Petrucci had the second seat all wrapped up.

A strong result for Miller is also imperative, however. The Australian is looking for some guarantees for 2020, and a renewal of his contract. The most important thing, Miller said, was ensuring number one status inside Pramac Ducati.

That meant getting a guarantee of a GP20, and of being first in line for upgrades. “As most of you know, [Pecco Bagnaia] has in his contract that he should have a 2020 bike. My goal is of course to keep the 2020 bike and also get the updates first,” Miller said.

But his options are limited, Miller acknowledged. “We’re in the waiting game at the moment. For sure we are talking with other people but as you’ve seen the situation at the moment is not clear, in terms of there is nowhere else to go really, unless something strange happens.”

The priority for Miller illustrates the situation which MotoGP finds itself in. “If I’m staying here, I’ve said all along I only want to sign a one-year contract because I feel it gives me extra motivation for the year after,” he explained.

“It makes me want to work harder and gives me a better opportunity to negotiate for next year and finally I need to sync up with these other guys on contracts. Because the last three contracts I’ve done have been with very limited options, let’s say.”

Miller would be very happy to stay with Pramac Ducati, he emphasized, as long as he had a competitive package. “I’m loving it here and happy to stay. Stoked to stay.

But like we said there are some other things that could go down, you never know, and we’ll just have to wait and see. If we stay here, we stay here. I’ll be happy, but like I say it’s going to have to be with the right package around me.”

Repsol Ruins

If there is a fly in the ointment for the Ducatis, it is in the shape of Marc Márquez. The Repsol Honda man was the only rider capable of staying close to Jorge Lorenzo in 2018, and finished a couple of seconds ahead of Valentino Rossi in third.

The 2019 Honda RC213V should give him a better chance, its more powerful engine allowing him to stay with the Ducatis along the straights at Barcelona.

“This year with the stronger engine, it will be a big help,” Márquez explained. “More than Mugello, because in Mugello, there is only one straight. But here there are two, three straights where we can use full torque, and that will be a small help, because last year, I was losing against Ducati in that area.”

If Márquez could stay close to the Ducatis last year, he may well be able to beat them in 2019.

There will also be much attention on Jorge Lorenzo, though the Spaniard is not likely to repeat his victory from last year. Lorenzo took a three-day trip to Japan directly after the race in Mugello, to work on the ergonomics of the Honda RC213V, and communicate directly with the HRC engineers.

Lorenzo, like everyone at Honda, has been quite tight-lipped about what exactly he tried there, and what parts may make an appearance on the Honda on Friday morning.

The Magic of Ergonomics

“We tried to think about almost everything that all these hours in the three days allowed us,” Lorenzo said. “There were priorities and things that were more important than others.”

“We tried to take profit of it all the time thinking about the things we can change in the near future and the things we can change in the long-term future.We will have some pieces for tomorrow and some more pieces for Assen on the ergonomy side. On the other side we will take more time but we are also working on that.”

That ‘other side’ is the room he has on the relatively tiny RC213V. Lorenzo compared riding the Honda to a marathon runner wearing shoes which were too small, hampering their performance.

“Maybe in the future we need to make the shape of the shoes a little bit bigger for me because the shoes worn by other sportsmen are very competitive,” Lorenzo said, extending the analogy.

But it was more than just making the bike bigger, Lorenzo emphasized, he still had a lot of work left to do on his riding.

“It’s not only the size of the bike or the ergonomy of the bike. I can also improve my riding and my understanding. Also if I can be more comfortable on the bike, I will be more competitive. That’s why I decide to make a big trip to Japan to accelerate this process with the possibility that we have.”

Speed Less Vital

The Suzuki is already very competitive, as Alex Rins demonstrated at Mugello. Starting from thirteenth on the grid, he very nearly ended up on the podium, and felt like the race had been his to win. The agility of the GSX-RR will help enormously, but the difference in the way the straights are laid out should also help.

At Mugello, the straight is uphill from the exit of the last corner, only dropping downhill once the bikes reach the braking area. Barcelona’s front straight has a slight downward slope, giving the bikes with a bit less power a better chance to stay with the front runners.

That straight should also make life a little easier for the Yamahas, not having to fight a literal uphill battle against the bikes with more horsepower. But there was also a lack of optimism at the start of the weekend, the lessons of Mugello having cast a cloud over the Yamaha camp.

“In Mugello we were fast, fast when we were riding alone, but to ride with people was very difficult,” Petronas Yamaha rider Franco Morbidelli explained. “I hope that here it’s going to be a bit different, because here we have some more overtaking spots. And as I said, on this straight I hope and I think we will struggle less.”

Factory Yamaha rider Valentino Rossi had taken his result at Mugello quite hard. “For me, the Mugello weekend was very tough, very hard,” the Italian said, “also because I arrived with a good expectation because in 2018 I did a good race. So it was a bit of a shock to arrive at the reality and be more in trouble.”

He had taken defeat so hard that he had gone to the Cavallara MX track, the place where he had severely injured himself in 2017 before Mugello, against the express wishes of his friends, and of his father.

“It’s one of my favorite tracks,” Rossi explained. “It’s a fantastic place. I love always to go there and I grew up there also. But unfortunately before Mugello 2017 I had a crash and was injured, so all my team – and especially my father – and all the guys around don’t let me go there for two years. I push always but it’s forbidden!”

This time, Rossi had an excuse. Andrea Dovizioso and Danilo Petrucci had organized a training session there, with a lot of to riders from the MXGP world championship.

“So I had one ‘ticket’ for one day and we rode, we enjoy a lot,” Rossi said on Thursday. “We stayed together with Dovi and Petrux but they have a lot of motocross riders of top level from the World Championship and European championship, so we train and we enjoy a lot.”

Assen, Not Barcelona

Given the performances of Fabio Quartararo at the past couple of races, normally, the Frenchman would be a candidate for a very strong result at Barcelona. All the more so because he won his Grand Prix at this race last year, in the Moto2 category. But Quartararo had arm pump surgery directly after Mugello, and so is not yet at 100% for the Catalan round of MotoGP.

That was an explicit choice, he explained. “Maybe for this race it was not necessary to have the surgery,” the Petronas Yamaha rider said.

“Because I think it’s not the toughest track of the year for the arms, but I think if we made it after Barcelona it would have been tough for Assen and Sachsenring. So I think we need to be really fit for these races, because we know Assen for me is the most critical in terms of physical condition. So we managed to get it done for this race.”

Quartararo tipped his hand in his thinking about Assen. “I think Assen is a really good track for us,” the Frenchman said, based on Yamaha results from the past.

“We know that Valentino has won a lot of races at Assen, we know the bike is good there. Not many straights, the bike is handling very well. So this is also a reason why I wanted to make the surgery last week, to be 100% fit for Assen.”

Q2 Means More Time in FP

Barcelona is also the home race for the Espargaro brothers, now both factory riders, the eldest Aleix with Aprilia, the youngest Pol with KTM. But they had differing views of their prospects at the track: Aleix believes he is already getting the maximum out of the bike, his performance limited by the acceleration in the bike.

Pol, on the other hand, was quite optimistic. Though Barcelona doesn’t suit the KTM RC16 the way that Assen or the Sachsenring might, the recent improvements had left him feeling optimistic.

With the base performance much better, Espargaro was more confident of ending free practice in the top 10, and going straight through to Q2. That confidence meant he could concentrate more on race pace, instead of having to throw tires at the bike during free practice in order to avoid having to go through Q1.

“Until the last few races we have been too much focused on Q2,” the KTM rider said, “because it is so important to start the races from a good position. I think 30% of the race is there: just to go with the top guys and get the speed at the beginning. I think now we are at a point where we are close to always be in the top ten and maybe here we will struggle a bit more compared to say Holland or Sachsenring.”

The improvements left Espargaro more relaxed during free practice, he said. “Generally now we are in a moment where we can relax a little bit more and play with used tires like the top guys are doing normally, and then preparing a bit better for the race.”

“The real progress is when you go into FP2 or FP3 and you are not nervous like it is a qualifying because you know if you will do a good lap then you will be ‘there’. The level is really high and you need to do a perfect lap but you can ‘be there.'”

“Before – even doing a perfect lap – you didn’t really know if you could be there. Now, it is the moment that is really nice and you can start enjoying riding the bike.”

Jack Miller explained the benefits of being confident of direct passage to Q2. “In the long run it sets you up, you understand what you are going for and I feel it helps an awful lot for let’s say self-confidence heading into the race because you know you’ve done the laps on the tires, you’re going in with a rough idea of how the bike is going to behave and what you need to do to make the tire run the distance.”

Testing, Testing

Both KTM riders were also very pleased that Dani Pedrosa had returned to action as KTM’s official test rider, and had spent two days testing the KTM RC16 at Brno. There, the Spaniard had focused on initial response of the throttle, and worked his way through a mountain of new parts.

“Dani was not quite happy with the first touch of throttle and because of his weight and position on the bike he needs a very gentle bike – I am a bit more aggressive – so they were playing with it to get the bike out of the corner a bit easier and also turning, going into the corner a bit easier,” Pol Espargaro explained.

“Dani was two days in Czech Republic which is a difficult track with hot conditions and he was able to do a lot of laps and tell us a lot of tricks to do on the bike,” Espargaro said.

“By the end of the day, second day, he felt some good improvements with the new package he was trying and this is super important and super nice so let’s see if they work in Barcelona and we can use it as well.”

But what the changes were, and what KTM would bring to Barcelona, Espargaro kept very tight lipped about. All he would say is that it would not be immediately visible to the naked eye. Perhaps we will find out on Monday, at the test.