Saturday Summary at Valencia: Of Pressure, Mistakes, Engines, And How to Win a Championship

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After all the drama, the talk stops tomorrow. Two titles on the line, and five men to fight over them. On Sunday, there will be no talk of crew chiefs being sacked, of team bosses appealing for penalty points, of teams concocting dubious plans, of teammates, team strategies or team orders.

When the red lights go out, and the thunderous roar of four-stroke racing motorcycles fills the natural bowl which cradles the tightly wound ribbon of tarmac that is the Circuit Ricardo Tormo, it is every man and woman for themselves, and the devil take the hindmost. Nearly a hundred young men and one young woman will take to the track on Sunday.

Most have already had their dreams of glory shattered; three more will share that disappointment; only two will etch their names permanently into the history books.

Both the Moto3 and the MotoGP titles are still undecided, the winner of each race likely to be crowned champion. The Moto2 title is already decided, and going on the evidence of practice and qualifying, the race could be over within a couple of laps, Pol Espargaro hoping to top off his championship with a win in the final race in front of his home crowd.

The HP Tuenti Pons rider has been fastest in every session so far, usually by a comfortable margin, so his objective looks well within his grasp. Others may try to prevent an Espargaro victory march, but it doesn’t look like either Tito Rabat, Jordi Torres or Nico Terol will be able to do much about it. Espargaro has deserved his title, repaying the faith Yamaha put in him when they signed him to the Tech 3 MotoGP team at Qatar, before the very first race of the year.

The Moto3 race looks set to be the best race of the day at Valencia, with little to choose between the three championship protagonists. Qualifying played out much like the entire season has, with little to choose between Alex Rins and Luis Salom, and Maverick Viñales tantalizingly close and ready to capitalize on any mistake.

With just five points separating the three men, the calculations are terribly simple: winner takes all. That leaves all three with a single mission: make sure you get out of the final corner strongest, and cross the line in the lead. There is a fair run from the tight final turn to the finish line, and so merely leading will not guarantee victory.

Polesitter Alex Rins was frank in his assessment of how the race will play out: it will be decided on the last lap, and probably in the final corner. There is little room for strategy, but doubtless Luis Salom will take the approach which has worked for him all season: hang back, save his tires, push hard in the final couple of laps.

In the first half of the season, Alex Rins kept falling into Salom’s trap, but as the year progressed, he has wised up to it. The race is really too close to call, with very little between all three of the contenders.

If I had to make a call, I would guess that talent will trump experience, Rins holding off Salom’s final push to the line. In reality, it could just as easily be Salom outwitting the two youngsters, or Viñales taking advantage of the battle between Salom and Rins.

If the Moto3 race looks set to be the most exciting, the MotoGP race could very well be the most tense. There is still everything to play for, but the nature of the MotoGP machinery makes it much more difficult for riders to pass each other.

Higher speeds, heavier bikes, deeply intrusive electronics and extraordinarily grippy tires mean that the margins are much, much tighter, leaving little room for the rider to maneuver. The room is still there, it just takes a lot more work to exploit it.

If it is up to Jorge Lorenzo – and it is in part up to Jorge Lorenzo – then the result of the race will be in no doubt from the first corner. Lorenzo laid out his plan in intimidating detail in FP4, grinding out 19 full laps between 1’31.3 and 1’31.9 in a single run.

Every single one of those laps was inside the lap record pace, Lorenzo’s fastest time nearly 1.2 seconds quicker than Casey Stoner’s old record from 2008. And every one of those laps was faster than the fastest time set by Stefan Bradl, the sixth fastest man in the session. Set using the hard tire, this was Lorenzo showing exactly what he intended to do in the race.

Can anyone follow him? Both Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa had similar speed to Lorenzo, but they were not grinding out the laps the way that Lorenzo does. Even Valentino Rossi looked capable of following in Lorenzo’s footsteps, though only with the soft tire, while all of the front three were almost as fast with the hard rear tire as they were with the soft.

On paper, it looks like it could be a very close race, but looks can be deceptive. Jorge Lorenzo told the press he had just a single objective, to get a flying start and to push as hard as he could from the start, in the hope of forcing Marc Marquez into a mistake. Whatever Marquez does, Lorenzo’s only hope for the title is to win the race, and that would be his aim from the very start.

Asked whether he has improved in recent years, Lorenzo highlighted the first few laps as the area in which he had gained the most. That will be Lorenzo’s plan on Sunday, and the only question is whether anyone can disrupt that.

There could be one small fly in Lorenzo’s ointment. During qualifying, the reigning world champion put in a scorching first lap, then slowed up during his second flying lap, before pulling into the pits. He went out for one more lap, before returning and swapping bikes.

Returning to the track, he could not follow the pace of an unleashed Marc Marquez, finishing in second spot, a couple of tenths behind the championship leader. The problem, Lorenzo said later, was a sudden and huge drop in power in his #1 bike, leaving him struggling. The team first suspected a braking issue, but it had nothing to do with the brakes, it was an engine problem.

Speaking at the press conference, Jorge Lorenzo said that his team had already located and fixed the problem, and he should be able to race the engine that lost power. That engine – engine #5 – was the new spec engine which Lorenzo received at Aragon, and had been racing ever since. It is his preferred engine because of the power delivery, which is less aggressive and easier to manage. The old spec engine was more tiring, and if he was forced to race with that engine, it would be much harder work to hold off the Hondas.

Could it be yet another engine failure for Lorenzo? On the face of it, his #5 engine should not have a problem. It only has 25 sessions on it, well under the average of 39 sessions which the old, tired engines have. There were also no external signs of fatigue, no smoke or other warning signs of impending failure.

If a MotoGP engine suddenly loses around half its power, as Jorge Lorenzo suggests, the problem was more likely electronic. If that is the case, he should be able to race his preferred engine on Sunday. But we will only know the truth after warm up, when Dorna publishes the engine sheets.

But winning is not enough for Lorenzo. He must also hope that Marquez finishes outside the top four, something which is not in his power. Lorenzo’s hopes will be pinned on two factors: either a mistake by Marquez, or help from other riders. Can Marquez be pressured into a mistake? That seems unlikely, given the Spaniard’s history.

He already proved he can keep his cool in extreme circumstances in the 125cc race at Estoril in 2010, when he crashed his bike on the sighting lap of a restarted race, and had to come to have his bike repaired, start the warm up lap from pit lane, and the race from the back of the grid, and still went on to win. Marquez cited that very example when asked how he was under pressure, a sign of where his mind is.

Yet from the outside, Marquez looks to be living on the edge. Cal Crutchlow remarked on the Respol Honda rookie’s riding, telling reporters, “the way Marquez is riding, he’s taking a lot of risks.” Marquez could cruise to third place and a championship “with his eyes closed,” Crutchlow said, but the young Spaniard appeared to have no intention of doing any such thing.

The super-slow motion cameras so beloved of Dorna captured Marquez balancing on the razor’s edge in glorious detail, showing Marquez flicking the bike through the chicane, appearing to almost lose the bike completely, settle it with his body weight, and go straight in to sliding the rear without even breaking his stride.

“The plan is to be the same Marc as every weekend,” Marquez told reporters. That means riding the very ragged edge. Why take such risks? Because it is easier to concentrate when you are pushing at the limit, and not relaxing and being inattentive, Marquez explained.

Marquez’s willingness to ride at the very limit could yet land him in trouble, however. Behind the front row of Marquez, Lorenzo, and Dani Pedrosa sit three Yamahas, Valentino Rossi in 4th – yet again – with Cal Crutchlow and Bradley Smith beside him. Smith, in particular, is looking very strong at Valencia, and has been getting outstanding starts in recent races.

Smith does not have anywhere near the pace to run with Marquez for the whole race, but as Marquez is a notoriously poor starter, he could well find himself behind the Yamaha of the Englishman, and perhaps behind Rossi as well. That might leave him stranded in 5th for a while, exactly the position that would hand the title to Lorenzo, should Lorenzo win.

Finding himself in that position could cause Marquez to push just a little bit too hard, and perhaps to make a mistake. It certainly isn’t over yet.

Marquez’s main hope probably comes in the form of his teammate. While Marquez is going all out to win, Dani Pedrosa is very much a dark horse. Though Pedrosa has not dominated any session, he is following a pattern familiar from races where he has done well, posting strong times, but not fast enough to stamp his authority on proceedings.

Starting from the front row is an added bonus, and if there is one man who is capable of matching the lightning starts of Lorenzo, it is surely Dani Pedrosa. Pedrosa has won here a lot, and is perhaps the most highly motivated of the three to go all out for the win.

When he was asked in the press conference who he thought would win, Lorenzo or Marquez, Pedrosa immediately interjected “Me!” That is not as far fetched as it seems, and if he does win, Marquez wins the title almost by default.

Whatever happens, it will happen in front of a sellout crowd. There are no more tickets left, not even any at the door, and the traffic into the circuit was horrific, even on Saturday morning. In the five years since I started regularly attending races, getting in and out of the track has been a minor inconvenience, and I’ve never really needed to wait.

On Sunday, there could be a return to the old days, when leaving your hotel at 6am was the only way of ensuring you arrived at the circuit on time. A full house, three Spanish champions, and the prospect of some epic racing will add even more to the pressure cooker atmosphere. Sunday could be one for the ages.

Photo: © 2013 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved

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