Sunday Summary at Indianapolis: Of Smart Teams, Smart Riders, Bad Luck, and Brave Choices

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Indianapolis is not given to great racing – a lack of use on the infield road course means that the track is usually fairly dirty once you get off line – and Sunday was no real exception. The MotoGP and Moto2 races were tactically brilliant and masterful displays of crushing the opposition, but neither was particularly entertaining to watch. Fortunately, nobody had told the Moto3 riders about the lack of great racing, and the youngsters got the day off to a fantastic start, with the race decided in the last sector of the track.

Luis Salom’s victory was well deserved, from any number of perspectives. The Spaniard had stalked Sandro Cortese and Maverick Vinales all race long, and knew that he would have to capitalize on any mistakes the front runners made if he was going to win. That mistake turned out to be a preoccupation with one another, both Cortese and Vinales spending all their time worrying about each other and their battle for the Championship.

On the run into Turn 10, Salom dived inside the leaders and took over at the front. That threw Vinales and Cortese enough of a curve ball for Salom to lead the race to the line, taking his first ever victory in Grand Prix, a win that has been coming for some time now.

But the win is also just reward for the team: the RW Racing GP team has been an asset to the series, since Roelof Waninge took over the team from Arie Molenaar. RW Racing is a team of modest means, but they try to live within them, getting everything they can out of what they have, rather than throwing money they don’t have at a problem in the hope of fixing it.

Sticking with Luis Salom has been sensible: this is now the third season that the Spaniard has worked with crew chief Henk Spaan, and the stability of his situation is paying off. Salom is still a long way from the title fight, but he looks like he will be playing more of a role from this point forward.

Moto3 Championship leader Sandro Cortese took a big step towards the title on Sunday, after Maverick Vinales crashed out in the penultimate corner. The battle between Cortese and Vinales has been intriguing, the contrast between the maturity and consistency of Cortese, and the impetuosity and brilliance of Vinales. The German now leads the Championship comfortably, his advantage over Vinales 29 points.

Yet Cortese has won just two races so far this season, while Vinales’ tally stands at five victories from ten races, a strike rate of 50%. But where Cortese has been on the podium every race except Le Mans, Vinales has three DNFs to his name, losing costly points when he is not winning races. If Vinales can learn to stay on the bike for the rest of the season, he could still win this one.

The parallels between the Moto2 and MotoGP races were rather intriguing. The 2013 Repsol Honda teammates got to the front of the race at the right moment and then lay down such a withering pace that no one was capable of matching it. It was almost embarrassing how both Marc Marquez in Moto2 and Dani Pedrosa in MotoGP were capable of lapping a half a second or more quicker than their respective rivals. These were unquestionably the two strongest men of the weekend, and the way they won their respective races should strike fear into the hearts of anyone in MotoGP for 2013 and beyond.

Though the mode of victory was identical for both Marquez and Pedrosa, the effect on those chasing them was markedly different. Marquez’s victory in Moto2 came as a result of shrewdly choosing the correct moment to get to the front, just as his main title rival Pol Espargaro was struggling with traffic. But even once Espargaro had fought his way through to head up the chase, there was no way he could cope with the pace being set by Marquez, a worrying development after Espargaro had dominated throughout practice at Indianapolis.

For Pedrosa, he hit the front early and simply set a pace that was well beyond anything those following could match. Jorge Lorenzo’s gamble on the soft tire did not quite pay off as he had hoped, the performance dropping off too much in the second half of the race. But even with a harder tire, there was no way he would have been beating Pedrosa; the 2010 World Champion struggled with setup early, he and his team only getting it right as they headed into qualifying practice. Pedrosa’s secret was simple: “I didn’t touch [the bike] from yesterday. So I knew the bike, it was the same tires and the temperature was also similar. It was pretty familiar.”

For a while, it looked like Ben Spies might be able to take the fight to Dani Pedrosa, the Texan taking the lead in the second turn, and holding off Pedrosa’s pass down the straight with some brave braking maneuvers into Turn 1. But it was not to be: as Spies chased Pedrosa down the main straight, shortly after having been passed by the Spaniard, the engine of his Yamaha M1 let go in spectacular style, leaving a massive trail of white oily smoke in his wake. Spies’ run of bad luck continues, passing into the field of the statistically improbable, but the Texan himself was sanguine about it. “In the first 10 minutes, I wasn’t even frustrated, I was just kind of in disbelief that that much bad luck could happen in that way. It’s just got to the stage where it’s kinda humorous.”

Another stroke of bad luck for Spies – his third mechanical of the year, after problems with a cracked subframe at Qatar and collapsed suspension at the previous race at Laguna Seca – immediately bought out the conspiracy theorists. It is true that the amount of bad luck Spies has faced is beyond what people are normally prepared to accept as random, but just because it is unusual does not mean that the conspiracy theorists are necessarily right. In a world where the control freaks which riders and teams are trying to exclude any unforeseen possibilities, random acts of entropy are not welcome. Yet at this moment, that is still what Spies’ problems appear to be.

The situation was not helped by the fact that the engine which let go in Spies bike was the one that was in the bike when he crashed during qualifying on Saturday. Spies himself came off relatively lightly, with just a strained muscle in his shoulder and some heavy bruising on his back and shoulders. But his engine appears to have suffered more severe damage, though it was damage that was not immediately visible when checked over by the Yamaha engineers. Spies used the same engine during the morning warm up, and it passed that test with flying colors.

The way Spies’ engine destroyed itself was reminiscent of Jorge Lorenzo’s bike at Assen, which spewed out a similarly spectacular cloud of smoke as it lay on its side when the Spaniard was skittled into the gravel by Alvaro Bautista. It is conceivable that one particular component – a head gasket, or valve seal maybe – is susceptible to crash damage and subject to failure without warning. The way that the bikes of both Spies and Lorenzo blew through their oil while still running shows that despite the engine restrictions, these bikes are still running very close to their tolerances.

Afterwards, Spies was careful not to pin the blame for the incident on anyone inside Yamaha or his team, though he did make a point of letting reporters know that he had been told at Mugello, where he had suffered from food poisoning, “if I’m not going to ride 100% at Laguna, don’t show up.” Spies would not tell reporters who said this to him, saying only that it was “somebody high up.” Clearly, Spies’ decision to announce via his Twitter page that he was leaving Yamaha before Laguna Seca, the factory’s biggest weekend of the year in one of their key markets, was motivated by those remarks. But the relationship has been difficult for some time now, with Spies consistently pointing out that he has been giving 100% effort, and that Yamaha can see that on his data. Both sides will be relieved once this relationship is over.

Bravest ride of the weekend has to go to Casey Stoner, the reigning-World Champion riding, despite having torn all of the ligaments in his right ankle, as well as fracturing a couple of bones. Stoner looked pretty strong until the halfway mark, at which point it was obvious the painkillers were starting to wear off. Andrea Dovizioso, who fought with Stoner for the final podium spot, remarked that he could see Stoner trying to change his style to cope with the limitations of his damaged ankle.

“His position on the bike was really bad,” Dovizioso commented. “I knew he couldn’t keep that energy until the end, and I could beat him.” In typical fashion, Stoner pronounced himself frustrated and dissatisfied with the weekend’s results, having hoped he would be able to hold on to a podium. Love him or hate him – they really do appear to be the only two options, given the reaction he elicits from MotoGP fans – you have to admire his courage, his determination, and his ability to perform at the very highest level even with a severe ankle injury.

It is tempting – if perhaps not entirely valid – to compare and contrast Stoner’s race with that of Valentino Rossi. The Italian would not be drawn on whether this was the worst race of his career, but he admitted that he had given away a lot of time – nearly a full minute – to the winner Dani Pedrosa. The bike was sliding at the rear, but even worse was having the front nearly fold several times early in the race. “After those moments, I just cruise the bike because I don’t want to crash like in Laguna,” Rossi said.

The problem was not all down to Rossi, however. Indianapolis is a bad track for Ducati, with the bike always suffering at left-handed tracks. “When the track goes left, I have a lot more problems,” Rossi said, “I don’t feel confident on the left.” His only consolation was that he did not crash while pushing, the mistake he had made at Laguna. The Honda and the Ducati appear to be mirror images of one another, the RC213V loving left-handed tracks, losing the chatter which plagues the bike when the corners go right, while the Desmosedici has no feel when the track goes left.

Rossi is looking forward to getting to Brno, a track which goes right again, and then going on to Misano, where they are to have a private test with new material. Now that he has signed for Yamaha that does not mean that he has given up on the Ducati: “I can’t give up. Seven races is a lot,” Rossi commented.

The move to Yamaha for next season would not be easy either, though. “For me, next year will be very crucial,” Rossi explained. “I did a very brave choice. I want to still understand if I’m still a top rider.” Life might have been a little easier if he had simply decided to stay at Ducati, Rossi explained. “I have a quite safe position if I stay in Ducati. I will take a lot a lot of money, and I can stay and if the result doesn’t arrive, you know…. But if I will ride the M1 together with Lorenzo, I have to make the maximum, train the maximum, concentrate the maximum, put all the things together at the top level to try to understand if I’m still at the top. I think anyway I can make some good results.”

Photo: © 2012 Jules Cisek / Popmonkey – All Rights Reserved

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