Sunday Summary at Motegi: On the Unpredictability of Racing & Why You Should Never Trust Pundits

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There have been occasions over the past few years when I have asked Nicky Hayden how he manages to find the motivation to keep racing every Sunday. His answer is always the same, whether I have asked him after a surprise podium, or after coming in tenth: “You never know what can happen in the race. That’s why we line up.”

Hayden is living testament to his own deeply driven mixture of ambition, hope, and determination. His 2006 championship was won against the odds, and against the greatest rider of the period at the height of his powers.

Sunday’s races at Motegi – indeed, the races at all three of the flyaways – have been a shining example of the vicissitudes of racing. In all three classes, the presupposed script was torn up and thrown away.

In Moto3, young men facing pressure made major mistakes. In Moto2, one astounding comeback met with disaster, another astounding comeback met with triumph, and a championship. And in MotoGP, the champion-elect as of a couple of races ago is finding himself having to fight for his title. The season is only over once everyone crosses the line for the last time at Valencia.

It has been a lesson in humility for MotoGP pundits, and for this pundit in particular. I, like most of my colleagues, parroted the line that Motegi was a Honda track, and that the Yamahas would struggle at the circuit.

Apparently, Jorge Lorenzo did not get the memo, for the reigning champion took pole on Saturday and then victory on Sunday, setting the fastest lap along the way. The method by which he did so was breathtaking in its audacity, and almost painful to watch for its cruelty.

Lorenzo fired off the line from the start, tried to pull a gap, and when he was caught by the Hondas, started cranking up the lap times until they could no longer match his pace. It was a picture perfect example of applying pressure to his opponents while leading, ratcheting it up until they crack under the strain.

It is unfortunate that it is more tense than exciting, and makes for interesting viewing more for connoisseurs than for casual fans, but the effort, talent, and sheer determination involved is beyond measure.

Was this his best race, Lorenzo was asked? “51 victories is a lot to remember,” Lorenzo said, “but one of the best for sure.” It was one of the happiest days in his career, he added, taking Yamaha’s 200th victory at the track owned by Honda. He turned up at a circuit where the Hondas were expected to dominate, and he crushed them, beating them despite being on clearly inferior machinery.

With its hard braking zones, high top speed and low gear corners, Motegi is clearly a Honda track, as Lorenzo delighted in pointing out. Of the top five finishers, four were on a Honda. Only one was not, and it finished first.

Though this was Yamaha’s 200th premier class win, victory clearly belonged to Lorenzo rather than to Yamaha. Given where the other Yamahas finished, Jorge Lorenzo is the major differential factor in performance. If you take away the laps where Valentino Rossi ran off the track and compare Rossi’s race time for laps 4 to 24 to Lorenzo’s for the same period, Lorenzo is nearly 16 seconds faster, or the better part of a second a lap quicker.

Part of this is due to Lorenzo’s tire choice, choosing to run the soft tire rather than the hard, a gamble that turned out to be the right one for the edge grip which the Yamaha needs. Part of this is down to Lorenzo’s style, braking earlier and more smoothly and keeping the bike more stable, allowing him to brake harder, and also being more smooth with the throttle, consuming less fuel in the process and therefore having more power throughout the race.

But most of all, it is down to Lorenzo’s talent. With the equipment he has at his disposal, he shouldn’t be anywhere near the Hondas. But he is, every week. What Yamaha would do if Lorenzo were to leave or be injured does not bear thinking about, if you are Lin Jarvis. The Yamaha boss will have to dig deep into his pockets if he is to keep the world champion after his contract expires in 2014.

So Lorenzo takes the championship fight to Valencia, as was the plan all along. In Aragon, Lorenzo’s team boss had told me that this was their aim, to prevent Marquez from wrapping up the title before the final race, and then going into Valencia hoping for an eventful race. “Anything can happen,” Zeelenberg said.

That is a universal truth in racing, as the Moto2 and Moto3 classes demonstrated. Lorenzo will need something to happen, as Marquez can wrap up the title with a fourth place, and getting two bikes between himself and Marquez is profoundly difficult.

Valentino Rossi tried to help Lorenzo today, getting a superb start and slotting his Yamaha in behind his teammate, but ahead of the two Repsol Hondas. Lacking Lorenzo’s smoothness in braking, however, Rossi struggled with the brakes, and let Marquez and Pedrosa by, then dropping even further as he ran completely into the gravel.

Despite the 340mm carbon disks, he simply lacked power in braking. In part this is due to the different style the Yamaha requires, and in part due to his heavier weight, something which Cal Crutchlow also complained of.

At Motegi, the Yamahas were overheating their brakes and lacking braking pressure, and that lost them ground against the Honda. All of the Yamahas except Jorge Lorenzo, of course.

The biggest losers at Motegi were Marc Marquez and Honda. Marquez less so than HRC, mainly because he salvaged what there was to salvage, and made it home in one piece and in second place. Marquez had the disadvantage of racing at Motegi with no experience on a MotoGP bike here, a track which is radically different in the various classes, due to the differences in speed, weight, and braking distances.

Marquez had no reference points, he didn’t know where to brake and where to turn in. Normally, he told reporters, this was what he spent his time learning on Friday, but as Friday was canceled, he had to learn one set of references in the wet on Saturday, then had 50 minutes to learn another set in the dry on Sunday morning. That he was still learning them was obvious when he crashed during Sunday practice, losing the front on a cool track as he searched for braking spots. At least he was prepared for next year, he told reporters.

The roots of Marquez’s failure to wrap up the title lie of course in Phillip Island. “I didn’t lose the moment today, but at Phillip Island,” Marquez told reporters. “Here I gave the maximum, and I’m satisfied with that I have done.”

If Marquez’s team had got their strategy right in Phillip Island, the Spaniard would have been crowned champion, at Honda’s home, in front of their top brass. Instead, Honda leave Motegi empty handed, except for wrapping up the team championship. That is the sort of prize valued only when failure looms large elsewhere.

Marquez is still likely to wrap up the championship at Valencia, however. A 13 point lead means that he only needs to finish in 4th to become the youngest world champion ever. Given that he has only finished off the podium twice this season – once at Mugello, when he made an unforced error in the race, and once at Phillip Island, when he was let down by his team – the probability of him not being on the podium at Valencia is small.

Looking back to last year, when he blasted through the field to take the win in Moto2 after being forced to start from the back of the grid, betting against Marquez seems foolish indeed. Yet Marquez is showing signs of strain, his perma-grin wavering from time to time as the title gets nearer.

That is exactly why Jorge Lorenzo and his team want to take this championship down to the wire: because they know that a rookie with his eyes on the championship at the last race of the year will be under immense pressure. Lorenzo will exploit this to the maximum, and try to ramp up the pressure even more. Marquez hasn’t cracked all year, but if there is one place where he might crack, it could be Valencia.

Nerves are what broke open the Moto3 championship as well. With the title chase getting close, both Luis Salom and Alex Rins cracked under pressure, Salom only partly to blame, but Rins all of his own accord.

Salom was first taken out by Isaac Viñales, the Spaniard highsiding right in front of the championship leader, but got back on and was climbing steadily up the order, before crashing out of the race. Rins managed to crash of his own accord while chasing his teammate Alex Marquez.

Maverick Viñales was the only one of the three championship contenders to stay upright, taking the title fight to Valencia with just 5 points separating the top three riders. Whoever wins in Valencia automatically becomes champion.

The winner of the Moto3 race should also serve as a warning for the future. Those who have followed the careers of both carefully say that of the two Marquez brothers, Alex is the more talented. His win at Motegi was also a victory over his brother. While Marc took 33 races to claim his first win, Alex managed it in 27 races. If Yamaha is smart, they will start chasing a pre-contract with the younger Marquez as soon as possible.

The events of the Moto2 race prevented all three championships from going down to the last race. Pol Espargaro had already taken the lead in the title chase after Scott Redding tried to hang on to a bike which was trying to highside him at Phillip Island, and fractured his radius in the attempt.

Quick surgery and Lorenzo’s win in Australia gave the Englishman hope, and he came to Motegi intending to score enough points to prevent Espargaro from wrapping it up at Motegi, and taking the decider to Valencia.

His attempt was brave, but he was foiled by conditions. Not wishing to risk further injury, he backed off once the track turned from full wet during qualifying to partially drying. Unpredictable grip levels meant more danger of crashing, and so Redding settled for 15th. That left him in the middle of traffic when Tito Rabat crashed in front of him, and nowhere left to go.

With bikes and injured riders down, Race Direction had no choice but to red flag the race and aim for a restart. Once it became apparent that Redding would not make the restart, the championship was out of his hands.

Motegi was symbolic for where Redding lost the championship: in his qualifying position. The first laps of a Moto2 or Moto3 race are brutal, and if you get caught up in traffic then it becomes very hard to make progress. Redding was brilliant all year at threading his way through traffic, but his luck was bound to run out at some time.

At Aragon, Sepang and Motegi, Redding had qualified in 13th, 10th, and 15th, leaving himself with a mass of work to do. At Brno, he had qualified in 13th, and in German he had started from 8th. These are all so far down the grid that you risk running into traffic and losing touch with the leaders from the start.

If Redding had qualified better at Motegi, he wouldn’t have been behind Rabat, who was in 6th spot when he highsided out and caused the mass crash which Redding got caught up in.

This should take nothing away from Pol Espargaro, however. After a very difficult first part of the season, where the Spaniard struggled with getting the tires to work, his team found a solution at the Mugello tests.

From then on, he was a constant threat, winning 5 races and finishing outside the top 4 only once. Espargaro has been brilliant, consistent, fast, and intelligent. He thoroughly deserves the 2013 Moto2 title, and rewards the confidence which Yamaha put in him when they signed him back at the first race in Qatar.

Yet Espargaro has been pushed on by Redding too. Without the intense rivalry throughout the season, neither rider would have reached the heights they did. This has been a classic year of Moto2 racing, and the good news is that it their rivalry is set to continue into MotoGP. Their machinery may not be equal in their first year in the class, but from 2015, things could get pretty lively between them once again.

And so to Valencia, the last race of the season. The last time a title was decided there in the MotoGP class, the hot favorite ended up crashing out, and Nicky Hayden ended up celebrating in a cloud of yellow smoke, the Valencia circuit having banked on Rossi clinching the title there.

As Nicky Hayden always says, you never know what’s going to happen. And that, dear reader, is why they line up on Sunday.

Photo: Yamaha Racing

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