On Saturday after qualifying, I wrote about how one of motorcycle racing’s defining characteristics is its unpredictability. That was written in response to a thrilling qualifying session that saw Jack Miller take pole by rolling the dice on slicks on a drying track, and outperforming everyone else.
The rest of the grid had been pretty unpredictable too: Tito Rabat in fourth on the Reale Avintia Ducati GP17. Marc Márquez, the man who had been fastest by a country mile all weekend, only starting in sixth. Three first-time pole sitters in the three Grand Prix classes. Saturday at Argentina defied expectations.
Sunday at the Termas De Rio Hondo circuit made Saturday look positively straight-laced. Wild doesn’t even begin to cover the events on race day. There were Moto3 riders gambling on slicks on a track with just a very narrow dry line.
There were new names and fresh faces at the front of the Moto2 race, a thriller that went down to the wire. But when MotoGP came around, even those events were made to look positively mundane.
So much happened that it will take several days to digest, let alone do justice to in writing. There were so many facets to this race that I will need more than one report to deconstruct it all. For now, we will start at the beginning, and work our way forwards from there.
It all begins with the weather. Heavy rain all night, followed by the track drying out through the course of the Moto3 and Moto2 races left the track in a difficult condition.
The Moto2 bikes and their fat Dunlop rubber had at least cleared out a dry line around most of the track, but it was not very wide in places, and there was water crossing the track. Then a light rain started to fall as the riders prepared to leave pit lane, making them choose wets instead of slicks.
All except Jack Miller, that is, who rolled the dice on slicks once again, determined to seize an advantage wherever he could find it.
Motorcycle racing is many things, but above all, it is unpredictable.
Just when you think a racing series has settled in to a pattern, either during a season or over the course of a race weekend, along comes some unexpected factor or other to throw a spanner into the works and turn it all on its head.
Suddenly, the script has gone out of the window and the protagonists are all ad-libbing their way to a completely new and unimagined story.
This is why so many riders sport symbols of gambling on their leathers, helmets, or bikes. Look around the MotoGP grid, and you see dice, cards, and poker chips everywhere.
With so many random elements which can affect the outcome, from mechanical misfortune to errors of judgment to choosing the wrong tires to the fickleness of the weather, there is always the hope that things can break your way.
It’s always worth rolling the dice, because from time to time, a gamble will pay off handsomely.
That is how we ended up with the polesitters in the three classes at Argentina all taking pole for the first time in their careers.
We expected practice at Termas De Rio Hondo to be dominated by the weather, and we were right, though not in the way we expected.
Rain had been forecast for all of Friday, but it largely held off except for the odd wayward shower which caused more of a nuisance than any real disruption.
But a combination of a dirty track and strong and gusty winds made conditions difficult at the Argentinian round of MotoGP. It turned the field on its head: Andrea Dovizioso, the man who had won the previous race at Qatar, finished FP2 as 24th and last on Friday in Argentina.
The track played a big part in making life difficult for the riders (or more accurately, everyone not called Marc Márquez). The resurfacing had been a major improvement, removing the worst of the bumps, but the new surface didn’t really have any extra grip, the riders said.
“It’s positive about the bumps,” Andrea Dovizioso said. “Apart from Turn 4 all the other corners are much better, almost perfect. The grip is not good like the old one, maybe it’s worse, maybe it’s too new, I don’t know when they did.”
Valentino Rossi agreed. “The new surface is a bit better because we have less bumps,” the Italian said. “I think Michelin was a bit worried about the level of grip because they bring more tires. At the end the level of grip of the new asphalt is the same as the level of grip with the old asphalt.”
The real problem was the track still being dirty, and not being rubbered in, Marc Márquez explained.
“It’s good. In terms of grip, very very similar the new and old, you cannot feel the difference, because there is no rubber, it’s just dirty. But it’s so good about the bumps. Last year it was at the limit, quite dangerous with big bumps, but this year it’s completely flat,” the Spaniard told reporters.
It is a good job that the Termas De Rio Hondo circuit in Argentina is one of the finest on the calendar. Because actually getting there would test the patience of Odysseus.
For most of the MotoGP paddock, it is at least a 24-hour journey to get to the track. If everything goes according to plan, that is, which, as any experienced traveler will tell you, things tend not to do.
This year, as usual, a sizable portion of the paddock found themselves taking the better part of two days or more to get to the circuit. Poor weather, a diverted flight, or a missed connection meant that some paddock folk found themselves rerouted via Montevideo in Uruguay.
Pol Espargaro got bumped off his overbooked flight to Buenos Aires. Members of the Marc VDS MotoGP team took 48 hours to get to Termas, with team press officer Ian Wheeler the current record holder, taking 50 hours to get from Dublin to the Argentinian track.
It took him 28 hours to travel just 500km, an average speed that even I, an overweight, aging journalist manage to exceed while out cycling.
It’s worth it once you get there, though. The atmosphere at the track is phenomenal, and the circuit layout is one of the best of the season.
The circuit has a bit of everything, and a lot of the thing which racers love: fast, flowing, challenging corners which test rider courage and skill equally. Though there is no real elevation change, the circuit has enough dips and crests to require precision in braking.
Track days are winding down, the new machines for next year have already been revealed, and the cold of winter is upon us. For the motorcycle industry, this is the low-point of the season.
There is something to look forward to in the off-season, however, and it’s the Dakar Rally.
In just about one month’s time, the world’s top off-road racers will take part in what is called the most grueling motorcycle race on the planet.
The 2018 Dakar Rally is the 40th edition of the iconic rally raid, and once again it will take place far from its namesake, with competitors racing through Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina.
This year’s route will take racers to the Pacific Ocean, through the Huacachina sand dunes, and beyond, until they finish in Córdoba.
The FIM today released the provisional 2018 WorldSBK version. Just as last year, the schedule contains thirteen rounds, spread out from February to late October.
Two circuits visited in 2017 are out, Jerez and the Lausitzring, while Brno makes a return to the WorldSBK schedule, and a brand new circuit in the west of Argentina, near the border with Chile.
The schedule starts as ever at Phillip Island in Australia on 25th February, with the WorldSBK and WorldSSP classes competing. As is traditional, the race is preceded a couple of days earlier by a two-day official test.
The start of the series is once again rather fragmented, however, as WorldSBK fans will have to wait four weeks for the second round of the series at the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand.
If the two MotoGP races so far this year have had the kind of internal logic more commonly associated with a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, the Moto2 and Moto3 classes have been rational seas of serenity.
Which, come to think of it, also makes them more than a little like the more pious parts of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. These are topsy turvy times indeed.
When Moto2 first started, it brought the most harrowing and raucous parts of Bosch’ work to mind, voracious insanity unleashed on two wheels, which sensible people feared to look at. Fortunately, motorcycle racing fans are anything but sensible. It is one of their better traits.
But those days are now long gone, and the intermediate class has become processional, races decided almost before they are begun.
A nostalgia for the madness of the past keeps us watching, hoping to see a revival of the old ways. From time to time, the series livens up again, and we start to dream that our prayers have been answered, though such thoughts are usually dashed as soon as they arise.
The Moto2 race in Argentina was very much a case in point. It started out processional, then grew tense, then the tension frayed, then renewed, only to end with bang.
Literally, in the case of Alex Márquez, who ended a long way up in the air before coming down to earth with a solid thump.
Along with a thrilling weekend of racing, several interesting items of news emerged in Argentina. Brad Binder and Remy Gardner were injured, and face surgery.
Also, discussions were held in the Safety Commission regarding who progresses to Q1 and Q2. And at a press conference, Dorna announced that the WorldSBK championship will be racing in Argentina in 2018, at a new circuit in the west of the country.
Weird is still the new normal in MotoGP, though after Qatar, we appear to be entering the second half of the acid trip, the part where the hallucinations stop being overwhelming and start to take on a strange kind of internal logic once you learn to embrace the weirdness.
You can sort of understand why motorcycling’s premier class is throwing up the kind of bizarre surprises that it does, and the truths you held to be self-evident still have some roots in reality, though they are much, much shallower than before.
The Termas De Rio Hondo track remains one of the jewels in the crown of motorcycle racing, albeit one which could use a bit of a polish. The track is little used, which often leaves it dirty, while also becoming rather bumpy.
Yet the layout is still glorious, and perfectly suited to the cut-and-thrust of two-wheeled racing, each overtaking point lovingly crafted to allow the chance to counter if passed.
Layouts like that help create great racing, which is what we got in part. But the blemishes threw up anomalies, causing riders to crash out and the racing to falter.
There was still a spectacle to admire, in all three races. The day started well, with Moto3, though a break in the field cut the battle for the lead down to a group of five, with a deserving winner at the end.
The Moto2 race threatened to turn into a snoozer, but the field tightened as the laps ticked off, creating last-lap drama that rendered the race memorable. And the final act was worth the wait, packed with drama and surprise.