Preview of the Spanish GP: The Season Starts Here

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Jerez is always a very special weekend. When Valentino Rossi described the first race back in Europe using those words, he spoke for everyone in the MotoGP paddock.

Everyone loves being back in Europe, because the atmosphere changes, the hospitality units fill the paddock, the catering staff, hospitality managers, runners, cleaners, general dogsbodies – in other words, the people who actually do any real work – return to fill the paddock, and old friends are reunited after a long winter away, often doing something else to subsidize the meager pay they take for the privilege of working in Grand Prix during the summer.

The paddock becomes a village once again, awaking from the long winter slumber. The setting helps.

The charming old city of Jerez is showing the first shoots of economic recovery, not yet enough to match the full bloom of spring happening on the surrounding hillsides, the slopes covered with wild flowers, but there is a much more positive vibe than there has been for some years.

There is a sense of optimism. That sense of optimism flows into the paddock, already buzzing after a sizzling and surprising start to the 2015 MotoGP season.

With over 100,000 people expected to pack the stands on Sunday, Jerez feels like the right way to kick off the long European leg of the championship.

The weather helps too. It is hot and sunny, with a long, dry weekend ahead of us. That will please everyone, giving them all a chance to actually work on set up.

The track is short enough for them all to go out, test a setup, come back in and try something else, and with the weather holding, they can repeat that process until Sunday’s race.

For Andrea Dovizioso, this was key: with so much still to figure out with the brand new GP15, the factory Ducati men want as much dry weather and stable conditions as they can get. The bike has worked at every track they have been at so far, and Jerez was always a particular bugbear of the Ducati.

Both Andreas, Dovizioso and Iannone, are keen to see how the new bike will actually go around the track here.

“I have a good feeling for this weekend, because the agility has improved a lot,” said Iannone. Agility is key at this track, because of the many changes of direction. “I think this bike is ready to fight with the best,” the Italian said.

That would make for a fascinating race weekend. Jerez suits both the Yamaha and the Honda, and having the Ducati be fast here would add to the excitement. The sweeping corners allow the Yamaha to use its corner speed to full effect, and the changes of direction suit the nimble nature of the M1.

But the layout also works for the Hondas. “There’s a lot of places here where you can go to maximum angle and then pick the bike up quite quickly,” Bradley Smith explained. That suits the Hondas, and allows them to get around the lack of grip the RC213V sometimes suffers.

Temperature will play a key role. The Jerez track gets greasier as the temperature goes up, grip disappearing as the mercury rises. If the track gets too hot, then it gets harder for the Yamaha riders to maintain the corner speed they need to shine.

Cooler suits them, but then again, too cool and the grip goes again, but in a different direction. It can be hard to figure out which conditions suit the Yamaha and which the Honda, but Bradley Smith was at hand to explain. “We rely more on the track grip than the Honda does, the Honda and the Ducati seem to search for grip more than we do.”

Does that mean that the temperature has to be within a certain range for the Yamaha to work? “Not necessarily,” Smith replied. “It depends on how abrasive the track is, how the tires are working for that specific track. So it’s not necessarily temperature windows we’re looking at, it’s the whole combination of scientific match between the tire and the surface.”

“We could have 15° degrees track temperature and still have amazing grip. Or there’s another track where it might have 35° or 40° and still have amazing grip. Because if you have a look at Sepang, we actually go alright, despite it being 45°. So it’s a bit more scientific than that, usually down to track abrasion than anything else.”

The Yamaha is the Goldilocks of MotoGP bikes. When everything is just right, the Yamaha is better. If things are just off, the Honda is better. “There’s let’s say five ways to ride a Honda, and only two ways to ride a Yamaha,” Smith said. That is an improvement over last year.

“Before this year, or before Valentino’s resurgence, there was one way. So the bike’s slowly changing, and they are slowly allowing us to play a little bit more and figure out a little bit more how to ride these bikes, rather than Jorge’s style. Because they realize at the moment it’s not working.”

They have more freedom to pursue their own direction. “You’ve just got more free range a little bit to find your own way, and it’s not being drummed into you as much, you have to do this, you have to brake smooth, you have to do this, you have to do that.”

That has been good for Smith. The Tech 3 rider puts that change down to his own improved fortunes. That hasn’t worked so far for his teammate Pol Espargaro, but that has less to do with the change to the bike than with things not having gone Espargaro’s way. But it is a hopeful sign for all the Yamaha riders.

Jorge Lorenzo’s high-corner-speed style is an astonishingly fast way to get around the track, but it is not a style that suits everyone. With the change to the Bridgestone tires, taking away edge grip, Yamaha have been forced to make the bike a little more versatile.

The fully seamless gearbox improves the bike in braking, making it possible to pitch the bike into the corner a little later. New parts are coming for Tech 3 to help them find traction, giving even more drive out of corners. That, as much as anything, has helped the bike become more competitive.

That promises to make for an exciting race on Sunday. As will the fact that both tires Bridgestone have brought look like being a viable race option, as they were at Argentina.

That offers the prospect of riders gambling on one tire or the other, and either trying to get away early and hold a gap, as Marc Márquez did in Argentina, or going with the harder option, and hoping it will improve at the end, as Valentino Rossi did two weeks ago.

What everyone is hoping won’t happen is the collision that happened between the two in the last two laps. In the ideal world, Rossi and Márquez will battle to the end at Jerez. Hopefully with Andrea Dovizioso, and perhaps Cal Crutchlow, Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith thrown in for good measure.

The collision in Argentina got a good going over during the press conference at Jerez. The assembled media did what they do best, pried and probed looking for cracks in the relationship between Rossi and Márquez. Had their relationship changed since the incidents, Márquez slamming into Rossi, then colliding with his back wheel and going down?

No, both men insisted. These things happen in the heat of battle, and crashing is one of the risks of racing. Battling hard for victory over the final laps was one of the great pleasures in racing, both men affirmed, and neither rider would do much very differently should they find themselves in the same situation again at Jerez.

Was Rossi annoyed that Márquez hit him in Turn 6? No. Was Márquez surprised that Rossi’s wheel came across in front of him between Turn 6 and Turn 7? Yes, but that was not because of Rossi, Márquez insisted. Márquez had not been expecting Rossi’s wheel to be where it was, because the Honda uses different lines through that particular section, where they change direction from right to left.

Will Marc Márquez do anything differently, and settle for 20 points come Sunday? “Step-by-step I understand a little bit more that sometimes it is better to take 20 points. But my style is always to give 100%.”

First, though, he has to be there. With his little finger freshly broken and put together again by Dr. Mir, Márquez realizes that things won’t be easy. He won’t know how hard it will be until he starts to ride.

The plan is for Márquez to be checked after each session, and the wound tended to, to make sure that no more damage has been done. Márquez broke his finger when a friend crashed in front of another bike ridden by a friend of his, and the friend rode over his hand.

He was lucky to escape with just a broken little finger, Márquez acknowledged. “When a bike rides over your hand, it can be more.”

Pain should not be the real problem, however. Pol Espargaro spoke of his experience while riding with a broken finger, having raced with a cracked middle finger in the past. The pain will not be a lot, but the different feeling having a finger fixed in the glove.

“It’s not even the movement because you don’t use it,” Espargaro said. “To have some stitches still in the glove, this will make everything a bit strange. It’s more the strange feeling to have something on the finger, to feel not normal, more than the pain. It’s more a distraction. For Marc it will not be a problem.”

Will Jorge Lorenzo join the battle at the front? It would be foolish to write the Movistar Yamaha rider off. So far, things have not gone Lorenzo’s way, but he has not faced anything major. Part of the problem has been the increased competitiveness of the grid.

With six competitive factory bikes, and a handful of fast satellite machines, being slightly of can drop you a long way down the order. Instead of fighting for first or second, you can find yourself battling for fifth. The aim for Lorenzo is to get everything back on track, and battle for the win once again.

To this end, he and his father have been training in Italy, not far from his home in Switzerland, riding a Yamaha R6 around a vast asphalt lot, which they can use to create miniature versions of any track on the calendar, one senior Spanish journalist told me.

No dirt track, no motocross, but pure speed on asphalt. We shall see if it bears fruit soon enough.

Dani Pedrosa is the great absentee, the Spaniard having decided against racing after testing himself on a supermoto bike and not feeling at full strength afterwards. There are rumblings of discontent in the paddock, and rumors about concern from Honda.

Toni Elias and Nicky Hayden have both had the same surgery, and those two were both racing again in less than two weeks. Pedrosa learned to be cautious after a period suffering with thoracic outlet syndrome, caused by a slightly misaligned screw in a plated collarbone fitted after he was knocked off his bike at Le Mans by Marco Simoncelli in 2011.

Since then, he has not rushed back into racing, an approach which Honda have learned to accept. Whether they are happy about it or not remains to be seen.

Will Suzuki be capable of joining in the fun? At a track which rewards agility, Suzuki have their best shot at mixing it at the front. New parts are coming to help solve the chatter which both Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales have suffered with on the right side of the bike.

There is no sign of the seamless gearbox yet, which had initially been planned for introduction at this race. Rumors of mechanical problems with the complex gearbox mean that its introduction has been delayed.

The risks of a mechanical failure are just too great: unlike an engine seizure, if a gearbox seizes, it locks up the rear wheel. If that happens at speed, it risks serious injury for the person riding the bike at the time. Those are not risks you want to take with two talented young riders.

Maverick Viñales faces another problem, one which Andrea Iannone must also deal with. The electronics of a MotoGP are so sophisticated that they can deal with different levels of tire wear, by changing the amount of traction control, engine braking and the power characteristics of the bike.

Power is cut to a level a worn tire can cope with, rather than intervening as the tire starts to spin. However, the electronics are not so sophisticated that they can switch mappings by themselves, despite being programmed with predictive algorithms.

That requires action from the rider, as certain preset points in the race. Working out which of the mappings and settings to choose from could be a challenge, especially if they are already engaged in battle.

Working that out takes experience, something which all of MotoGP’s youngsters – Viñales, Iannone, and Marc VDS rider Scott Redding – are still trying to gain.

Redding will also have some help this weekend, in the form of new parts from Honda. A new seat unit, and a new chassis with revised mounting points for the seat unit, should help to provide the Englishman with some more consistency.

Cal Crutchlow has had the new chassis since Austin, and has reported that the chassis does not help with outright lap times, but more with consistency over the full race. Redding needs to find another step forward, and this may help, along with the stiffer suspension he started using in Texas.

This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.

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.